Sweet and Lowe down

Jews in Hell chronicles Portland’s ultimate outsider(s)
By SAM PFEIFLE  |  August 15, 2007

Jews in Hell: Radical Jewish Acculturation | Released by Allen Lowe
In a photograph we took to celebrate the Portland Phoenix’s 100th issue, you can’t help but notice Allen Lowe. There, in a now-obliterated bus stop on Congress Street, Lowe stands in a back corner, his graying hair and beard, glasses, and rumpled shirt impossible to miss among a bunch of hipster twentysomethings all trying to look damn stylish (mostly by not looking at the camera).

What was this noted New York sax player and musical historian, who had just finished releasing a nine-CD retrospective of turn-of-the-century American music, doing selling classified ads part-time for an alternative-weekly paper in a city of 60,000? I'm not really sure, but it was a long time ago.

I was always incredibly intimidated by how much he knew about music, writing about local music weekly a few cubes away from a guy who has pretty clearly listened to everything. He even finished and published a book called That Devilin’ Tune, a history of jazz from 1900 to 1950, during his time with the paper; he’s now turned that into another nine-disc retrospective released last November.

Now I have the unenviable task of writing about Lowe’s own music with the knowledge that every reference I might make he’ll find imperfect (hence, few references will follow). Regardless, it’s a mammoth double-disc magnum opus of 38 of his compositions and performances called Jews in Hell: Radical Jewish Acculturation; Or: All the Blues You Could Play by Now if Stanley Crouch Was Your Uncle; Or: Dance of the Creative Economy: How I Learned to Stop Worrying About the SPACE Gallery and Love the Music Business. Yes, that’s really the title. Lowe has the type of humor where it’s difficult to know if he’s serious, and I can only tell you that the music here is serious; whether any of his titles or voluminous liner notes are meant to be taken totally seriously will have to be up to you.

Lowe personifies all of those nebbishy stereotypes our culture perpetuates about artistic Jews. He speaks like Woody Allen, looks a little like a Marx brother, and is self-conscious like Seinfeld. He’s aggressively critical and incredibly self-deprecating in circles of infinite finger-pointing. He’s pissed that the “twerps (if nice guys)” who run SPACE don’t know the jazz musicians with whom he’s played, then calls one of them a liar for claiming to have heard of Doc Cheatem. He seems to demand excellence of everyone playing music today, and then produces liner notes that are riddled with typos (including making “Jew” singular in his album title on the inside cover and a constant misuse of “than” instead of “then”).

So, too, does the collection of tunes here offer plenty of delicious contradictions. These are songs in styles you’re very familiar with, iconic American forms like ragtime, blues, country, and jazz, but they are like virtually nothing you’ve heard before. Lowe has a knack for needling the listener, keeping you from settling in or becoming too comfortable with any one song. While he clearly appreciates a simple melody and the power of a good hook, his love of improvisation makes it certain you’ll never really revisit your favorite piece of a tune unless you hit rewind, and he never lets you hear his true voice, either. All the vocals are affected like he’s singing in the reactor of a nuclear power plant.

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