“He was too out to be in, and too in to be out,” says the indispensable Boston bass trombonist and tuba player Bill Lowe when asked why his late mentor Bill Barron isn’t better known. It’s a description that could also apply to Lowe, who, at 77, is finally releasing his first album as the sole leader of a band. “Sweet Cane” has plenty of free improvisation, but Lowe and his Signifyin’ Natives Ensemble also swing hard.
Several compositions on the recording comprise the “Cane Suite,” which was inspired by “Cane,” an experimental novel by Harlem Renaissance author Jean Toomer published 100 years ago. Lowe, whose lengthy academic credentials include the many years he spent at Northeastern University, says he frequently taught the book to his students. “It’s about fear, the way that other novels are about wind and or the water. In ‘Cane,’ the stories have to do with how individuals respond to fear in the South.”
The disc includes a 40-page booklet that contains reflections on “Cane” by Lowe and the other musicians on the recording. The disc is being released by Mandorla Music, which is presenting an album release show at the Parish of All Saints in Dorchester on June 15. The night before the septet performs in Lowell.
Lowe’s father was a guitarist who led a combo called Jack Spruce and his Pittsburgh Cotton Pickers, his grandfather was a Southern Baptist preacher, and his grandmother gave Lowe “the gift of literacy.” By the late 1970s, Lowe had established himself as a first-call New York City musician.
In an interview at the Baker Chocolate Factory Apartments in Dorchester’s Lower Mills, where he lives, Lowe recalls a typical day from his New York era, and how it shaped him musically. “I’d teach English at Kingsborough Community College, and then I’d go play in the pit for ‘The Wiz,’ and after that there might be a rehearsal for Frank Foster,” he says. “I was playing with Alvin Ailey and with Latin bands. . . . Now, at the age of 77, this record is a conscious statement on my part as to what my aesthetic is.”
Playing in Foster’s Loud Minority Big Band taught Lowe “that you were part of a tradition, part of a community,” he says, remembering a time when the band managed to perform a gig on a cruise ship despite leaving their charts on land. The new album includes Foster’s “Simone,” and two pieces by Bill Barron, the saxophonist brother of pianist Kenny. When Barron moved from New York to teach at Wesleyan University, Lowe took over Barron’s “Anthology of Black Classical Music” radio show. Like Barron, Lowe would go on to teach at Wesleyan, in Middletown, Conn.
Proximity to Boston meant Lowe often came to town to play at venues like the Willow and the 1369. In 1989 he moved here to join the faculty at Northeastern, where he taught both music and African American studies. “I never just taught to pay the rent, although it did help,” says Lowe. “I’ve never separated the intellectual from the musical.” Lowe continued to appear with local ensembles like the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra and alongside music titans like Cecil Taylor. In 1993, he released a recording with a group he co-led with saxophonist Philippe Crettien.
For Boston musicians, Lowe “has been such a connective tissue between styles and generations,” says Taylor Ho Bynum, who plays cornet and flugelhorn with the Signifyin’ Natives and co-produced “Sweet Cane.” Bynum was a Brookline teenager when he first started studying with Lowe, and they have long been collaborators. “He’s someone that can immediately make people comfortable in whatever style they come from, and that helps create cross-genre music at its best.”
Bynum points out that while Boston’s music schools have rosters of jazz stars who come to the city to teach and then leave, Lowe has been a constant presence, playing in clubs, creating with his artist daughter Naima, and even gigging at the Milton Farmers’ Market.
“His priority has always been the music, not the hustle. For every Miles Davis who becomes famous, there are 100 artists who are working in the trenches, and the music wouldn’t survive without them,” says Bynum.
“Bill has a warm, round, distinct sound that most bass trombone players don’t have,” says Makanda Project leader John Kordalewski. Lowe was one of the first people he reached out to when he started the Boston big band, whose series of free summer concerts will resume later this month. “His breadth and depth of knowledge about music is enormous, and the spirit, generosity, and creative openness that he brings to being part of a group is wonderful.”
Many of the Signifyin’ Natives have had longtime associations with Lowe. South African vocalist Naledi Masilo is a more recent collaborator who met Lowe when she sang with the Makanda Project.
Of his group’s name, Lowe explains that when he was coming of age “it was all about talking back to The Man. . . . Now, in the 21st century, instead of yelling at The Man we’re going to signify to each other, and not behind the enslaver’s back, but right out in front. This is the new-school subversive.”
Noah Schaffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
BILL LOWE AND THE SIGNIFYIN’ NATIVES ENSEMBLE
At the Richard and Nancy Donahue Family Academic Arts Center, 240 Central St., Lowell. June 14 at 6 p.m. $15. eventbrite.com. At Parish of All Saints, 209 Ashmont St., Dorchester. June 15 at 7:30 p.m. $20. MandorlaMusic.net.