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‘Turn Me Loose, White Man’ Review: How to Listen to American Music

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As a saxophonist, composer and bandleader, Allen Lowe has recorded albums of impressive scope and ambition with musicians who span generations and communities. The unruly beauty of his music is grounded in tradition yet also consistently blurs styles and eras.

His approach is well stated in an introduction to his two-volume, self-published book “ ‘Turn Me Loose, White Man,’ or: Appropriating Culture: How to Listen to American Music, 1900-1960”: “Where does one start with American music, and where does one end? There are some obvious musical signposts . . . that serve well as beginnings,” he writes. “There are less clear endings, places that mark the discontinuation of styles, sound, and movements. Sometimes certain things seem to disappear, only to reappear as something else or something that seems like something else.” And, more than 200 pages later: “The sequence of musical events which drives studies like this are often lessons in why music is not history and history is not music.”

Nevertheless, Mr. Lowe stays devoted to music history. Among his four previous books, “That Devilin’ Tune: A Jazz History, 1900-1950” formed an essential counterpoint (or counterpunch) to, say, Ken Burns’s PBS series “Jazz.” Mr. Lowe likes subtitles upon subtitles. His secondary one here—“How to Listen to American Music”—indicates not another pop-culture guidebook but rather a consideration of American music’s glorious tangle for listeners of both aural and moral sensitivity.

Is “Turn Me Loose, White Man” his treatise on 60 years of American music, plus a companion 30-CD boxed set? Or is it a lovingly curated recording project with the longest set of liner notes in history? Though these two volumes stand on their own, for Mr. Lowe the music and the analysis form a dialogue, an essential call and response, a set of philosophical arguments much like the commentary surrounding religious texts, “honed by a mixed sense of aesthetic worship and social consciousness” that, thankfully, never grows pious.

Mr. Lowe’s website biography asks “Who is Allen Lowe, and why is he doing all these projects and why have you never heard of him?” Yet he’s hardly unknown. Francis Davis devoted a chapter to him in his 1996 book “Bebop and Nothingness: Jazz and Pop at the End of the Century.” There, Mr. Lowe lamented not “finding a place” as a jazz musician, not conforming as either “a neoconservative like Wynton Marsalis or a postmodernist like John Zorn.” The truth is more complex. Mr. Lowe, who has lectured and performed at Jazz at Lincoln Center, of which Mr. Marsalis is managing and artistic director, knows he is both outsider and not. That fluidity, that refusal to accept false dichotomies, is one great strength of his work as a cultural historian.