Mark de Clive-Lowe Finds the Essence of His Art on ‘Heritage’


Mark de Clive-Lowe was raised in New Zealand playing piano, moved to the UK during the 1990s and pursued electronic music before moving to Los Angeles and working around the edges of jazz.

(Photo: Renae Wooton)

It’s hard to pin down Mark de Clive-Lowe.

Born in New Zealand, where he developed a love for jazz through his father’s big band records before turning his ear to the nascent American hip-hop of Brand Nubian and Native Tongues, de Clive-Lowe moved to London during the late 1990s and built a reputation as a DJ and producer. He’s now based in Los Angeles, where he’s since rediscovered the piano and become a staple of the West Coast jazz scene. Zig-zagging through musical genres, de Clive-Lowe’s heritage is equally mixed: born to a Japanese mother and a New Zealander father who spent 30 years in Japan.

“I grew up primarily in New Zealand, where there were very few mixed-race people around me, especially Asians. So, there was a lack of a sense of belonging and identity,” de Clive-Lowe said. This upbringing was in an archetypally Japanese household, set among the rolling green of New Zealand, hearing traditional folk tales from his mother, while his older brother got him into the languorous piano compositions of Ahmad Jamal. This cultural meandering ultimately expressed itself in de Clive-Lowe’s own music, spawning the fractal freneticism of the broken beat genre he was instrumental in creating during the decade he lived in London.

“As a creative and an artist, the question is always, ‘Who am I and what am I saying?’ And as I get older, I feel like my connection to Japan has grown stronger,” he said. “Now, I have a deep ancestral pull to Japan, no matter where I’m living. I’m looking for more substance in what I do.”

This substance takes the form of a new two-part album, Heritage, the first volume of which was released in February with the second expected in April. Recorded over three nights at the Blue Whale jazz club in L.A., de Clive-Lowe explicitly addresses his Japanese upbringing, incorporating traditional songs such as “Akatombo” and Japanese-referencing numbers like “Bushido”—the ancient samurai code—while mixing his instrumental quintet with electronic programming and studio overdubs. The result is a seven-track record that bears the unmistakable mark of de Clive-Lowe’s playing, a seamless blend of his various influences and insular references. While drummer Brandon Combs’ fluid rhythm anchors the group, saxophonist Josh Johnson channels the breathy intensity of his spiritual forebears like Pharoah Sanders, and de Clive-Lowe provides the subtle melodic touches floating atop his compositions.

“Doing that show in L.A. was profound,” the bandleader said. “It was the first time I’ve done any kind of show where at the end I felt like, ‘That was me, that’s my music.’ It was cultural essence; it spoke to my core and it really felt like home.”

Typically enigmatic, the catalyst for making this album was not quite de Clive-Lowe’s upbringing, though, but a hallucinatory Peruvian ritual: an ayahuasca ceremony.

“The ceremony was intense and incredible,” he said, “this ancient medicine showed me what I needed to see. I saw matriarchy and Japan, and why I was born into this lineage. And it also showed me the need to connect with my lineage more.”

Heritage also plays like an homage to de Clive-Lowe’s love of the piano, with his keyboards at the forefront of compositions. Made to learn the instrument as a child by his father, by the time he relocated to London in the late 1990s, de Clive-Lowe said he didn’t touch the keys for a decade: “It was like jazz was still a dirty word.”

It wasn’t until he made L.A. his home in 2008 that he applied his newly-honed producer’s ear to his childhood instrument and soon found himself a key collaborator of strings arranger Miguel Atwood-Ferguson and musical interlocutor with contemporaries Kamasi Washington, Terrace Martin and Robert Glasper; it’s this back-and-forth between instruments and genres that gives de Clive-Lowe his unmistakable sound. Describing his approach to Heritage, he said, “Electronic club music taught me about sonic textures, rather than the functionality of notes. And that’s what I bring to the piano, this idea of capturing moments, like the needle drop where a hip-hop producer finds the sample, except I’m doing it in real time. It takes us to a place where we couldn’t have gone before.”

With the increasing discussions around cultural appropriation in jazz, especially when it comes to the designation “spiritual” for the incorporation of Indian musical tradition, for de Clive-Lowe Heritage is a way of coming to terms with his own experiences, rather than imitating the voices of others.

“For me, to do this record and to be able to understand my own culture is huge, it feels like a relief,” he said. “If you’re not from where the music is from, there’s always the question of ‘How do I actually relate to this?’ and ‘Am I appropriating it?’ So, when you come to make your own artistic statement, it’s really important to offer your truth and not someone else’s truth with a little repackaging.”

de Clive-Lowe’s notion of truth on Heritage ultimately reaches beyond the individual, beyond his lineage and into the cultural moment we’re currently living. “I would love the listener to reflect on their own identities and that of those around them,” he said, impassioned. “We’re in very divisive times, so it’s imperative to think of these issues, to combat individualistic nationalism.”

de Clive-Lowe’s free-flowing versions of jazz could, then, be the vehicle for change: “In reconnecting with our own ancestry, we realize that we share more with each other, no matter what your background is. We really are all part of the same story.” DB

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