Violinist Billy Bang and tenor saxophonist Frank Lowe shared a musical bond that evoked John Lewis’ famous description of Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry – “They’re almost like twins” – to the very end of their 25-plus-year collaboration. Above & Beyond represents that end: their last recording together (possibly Lowe’s last, period; it’s certainly the last to have surfaced yet). When it was recorded in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in April 2003, Lowe had been battling lung cancer for years, was down to one lung, and was blowing anyway. He’d be dead within five months. His last request was that Bang make this recording available... thus giving us this marvelous, moving, enthralling, baffling CD.
Though the nominal leader and author of three of the four tracks, it’s unfair to regard Bang as anything but a co-leader with Lowe. Indeed, in many ways it’s Lowe’s show: On two tracks he takes the first solo, and both times his is the most compelling; on a third (“At Play in the Fields of the Lord”), he’s at least as good as Bang, his lyrical, subtly rhythmic (yet joyful) solo a foil to the violinist’s impassioned, folk-inspired one. The notion that Lowe was playing such sublime saxophone with only one lung should be unthinkable.
Also, Lowe’s sole contribution here – “Nothing But Love,” his favorite of his own tunes – is the most perfect moment on the record. It’s a modal piece, masterfully syncopated and slightly funky; Lowe’s earlier recordings of it (on 1995’s Bodies & Soul and 2000’s Short Tales) have tended toward the freer domains, but here it’s anchored by an Afro-Cuban groove and pianist Andrew Bemkey’s assured, heavy touch. With both the saxophonist and Bang turning out highly thematic solos, the track is blissfully melodic and so convincingly retro-‘60s that only the high fidelity demonstrates that it’s not a transfer from an ancient Delmark master. It’s also spellbinding, with melody, improvisations, and especially the unison of tenor and violin building into a sense of powerful mystery – like that of a snake charmer.
However, the centerpiece of Above & Beyond is unquestionably the 24-minute “Dark Silhouette.” Five of those 24 minutes are an ornate, Satie-meets-Ellington piano introduction, which then collides with a hypnotic ostinato rhythm put forth by thoughtfully emphatic bassist Todd Nicholson and drummer Tatsuya Nakatani (who may know more about creating drama with just a tom and hi-hat than most film directors do with a state-of-the-art soundstage). When Bang and Lowe enter on a moody, introspective theme that harmonizes with the bass vamp, the track could almost be a background from a Mancini score.