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  • Glenn Siegel

Making History with the Bill Lowe Septet

There are plenty of important jazz musicians who have scant discographies as leaders, artists who have made lasting contributions to the form without a spotlight and with little fanfare. Bass trombonist and tubaist Bill Lowe is one of them.

Lowe stepped out of his role as valued sideman and revered teacher to lead a septet at the Community Music School of Springfield on Wednesday, November 10 as Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares’ 10th season rolled along.

Lowe, who has lived in the Boston area since the 1990s, was joined by fellow Bostonians Kevin Harris (piano), Luther Gray (drums) and Naledi Masilo (voice), along with Taylor Ho Bynum (cornet), Hafez Modirzadeh (tenor saxophone) and Ken Filiano (bass). The ensemble, known as Signifyin’ Natives, gave a spirited, 90-minute performance of eclectic compositions filled with lustrous solos and interesting arrangements.

The program began with “Simone” by Frank Foster and also included two pieces by Bill Barron, both important saxophonists who greatly influenced Lowe as a young musician. Lowe in turn has impacted generations of artists both on the bandstand and as an educator at Wesleyan, Columbia, Penn, Brown, Williams and MIT. The idea of passing down knowledge seemed important to Lowe, who explained from the stage his thinking about his predecessors, his band name and the state of race relations in the U.S.

The evening began with an extended drum solo by Gray, an unusual opening gambit, but one that served as an invocation and a reminder of the central role rhythm plays in African-derived music. When the rest of the band entered, it sounded full, magisterial even. Gray’s solo turned out to be one of the longest of the evening as most of the solos that followed were limited to one or two choruses.

I’d met the West Coast saxophonist Hafez Modirzadeh in 2016 when he co-led a UMass Magic Triangle Series concert with the legendary trumpeter Bobby Bradford. Modirzadeh was mentored by Lowe as a graduate student at Wesleyan University and there was good reason why Lowe insisted on flying him across the country for this tour. His inclusion of Middle-Eastern scales and his use of both a toy horn and a home-made double reed instrument (a trombone bell and a bassoon reed) gave a tart and unexpected flavor to the music.

Cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum, another former student of Lowe’s who helped organize this tour, has enlisted Lowe in many of his mid-sized ensembles over the years, including a 2012 Sextet concert in Jazz Shares’ inaugural season. Using a variety of mutes, Ho Bynum gave us a full account of his stylistic range, using overt blues and swing elements to make his characteristic smears and blurts even more provocative. He’ll be back in the Pioneer Valley in June with Illegal Crowns (Mary Halvorson, Benoit Delbecq, Tomas Fujiwara).

This was everybody’s first chance to hear Naledi Masilo sing. The South African vocalist has a powerful voice and an improviser’s spirit. A 2021 graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music, Masillo is poised to make her mark on the theater world, playing a leading role in Dreaming Zenzile, a play by Somi Kakoma, based on the life of Miriam Makeba. The play makes its Off-Broadway premiere at the New York Theatre Workshop in the spring. In Springfield she nailed fleet unison lines with Ho Bynum, scatted with assurance when it was her time to shine, and recited words from Jean Toomer’s classic “Cane” with an actor’s edge. Don’t be surprised if many more people know her soon.

Every time I hear Ken Filiano perform, I think there can’t possibly be a better bass player in the world. His arco playing is especially breathtaking. He has so much technique, such a creative and collaborative mind set, and such an impish spirit that he raises every bandstand he’s on. He obviously loves to play, and his openness to engaging with others means he works a lot.

Luther Gray held it down all night. He didn’t hardly solo after his opening salvo, but he steered and shaped the music in direct and subtle ways. Gray has been one of Boston’s most accomplished drummers for years. (Read Jon Garelick’s 2014 portrait of him in the Boston Globe.) Boston has always had lots of great musicians in its midst, and that number continues to increase. Maybe that can be the impetus to create an East-West Massachusetts railroad.

Bill Lowe has had a remarkable career, performing with Dizzy Gillespie, Eartha Kitt and Clark Terry, as well as Muhal Richard Abrams, Henry Threadgill and Cecil Taylor. He has performed and written music for the theater, (including the late Ed Bullins), organized concerts and has had an extensive teaching career. But the whole of Bill Lowe’s discography as a leader includes two co-led recordings with pianist Andy Jaffee and saxophonist Phillipe Crettien. That is about to change. The ensemble will end their tour at Firehouse 12 in New Haven, and record there the next day. If the results mirror the moving concert they provided listeners in Springfield, the jazz world will have an auspicious, and long overdue debut.

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