Musicians' Exchange, February 1997

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Musicians' Exchange
  • 1997 February

US rock magazines


The Jazz Passengers

A sound circus finds a chanteuse

Sal Cataldi

In a sense, it may all go back to Major Chumley's Combined Circus And Pandemonium Shadow Show, or at least the Big Apple Circus. Or maybe it was that Columbia student who slipped a straight-laced classical clarinetist named Roy Nathanson his first taste of LSD and John Coltrane in the same sitting.

For a decade now. Nathanson and The Jazz Passengers have been one of the most consistently diverse. interesting and entertaining groups to emerge from the percolating scene south of 14th Street in Manhattan. Their aural and performance Cuisinart contains equal parts Mingus, Marx Brothers, calypso, European classical, swing, Ringling Brothers, film noir and experimental theatre of the La Mama school It's a delightfully convoluted arithmetic largely formed by the experiences of its co-founders, saxman Nathanson and trombonist Curtis Fowlkes, longtime buds from Brooklyn whose experience includes everything from stints in circuses like Major Chumley's and the Big Apple to The Lounge Lizards, those legendary late-70s swankmeisters of sharp suits and art jazz.

But with their sixth and newest CD, Individually Twisted (32 Records), the Jazz Passengers are upping both the artistic and the commercial ante. They've formalized their union with ex-Blondie singer Debbie Harry. who guested on the last album and several tours. This pairing has produced a work that combines the best of the instrumentalists' unpredictable musical/theatrical smorgasbord and her vocal dramatizations.

"Debbie's a great actress who really makes the words come alive," comments a sleepy Nathanson, communicating by telephone from his longtime abode in the East Village. "It's always been my impression that her Blondie thing was a fantastic put-on, a great bit of acting combined with well-crafted music that was right for the genre and the times.

"Like us. she's a product of the Downtown scene," he explains. "She has the same aesthetic and many of the same friends. She's also funny, literate, theatrical and, I think, a formidable musicians who's managed to pick up our more complex song structures and time changes. From a dramatic, humorous and musical standpoint, she's a perfect addition."

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"They've been really patient with me: (minters Harry, who has been both hum-bled and excited by the experience of riding The Jazz Pasnengen musical and theatrical wave "The first time on the road was really tough They Wen, playing their pentagram titmice with stuff flying all over the place. and I was Pat sitting there in Square Land. just trying to survive. "I really feel that I've been hackto school with them. that I've learned and continue to learn more every day: she u-s 'The heat thing is that a kw of my hard earned learning is represented on this record

T hr musk on Individually Twisted ranges from high-camp quirt like the Nat ha Minn.tamped "Pot* C hop: a sw inging stop-time saga about a woman calling bra unnrliable mate onto the carpet. to class), ballads like 'Angel Eyes: taken by The Painterly-rt. at a New Orleans funeral march pace Like all the tunes on this album, this old chestnut features fins-rate playing a great unaccompanied sax aolo by Nathan-son cm the kickoff and vibist Bill Warr's unusual chord wirings and acting

"These guys are just incredible musi-cians, &Mitt% mirk-lan► says Harry They are incredible improvisers and accompa lusts who alwart play things that inspire and support the song 'Everybody in the band writes and knows that the music and the playing should be in service of the lyrics' adds Nathanson 'While there's lots of playing. the musk is not soloorinited It's more likes mini big banda group noticing together to put an environment and meaning scram* For a taste of true understated instru-mental mastery in service of a song and singer. listen to the 'work of the other in Jazz Passenger. violinist Rob Thomas on Angel Eyes" or the calypso fantasy "Ole" His quavering. throaty fills and solos seem like another voice. shadowing. teasing and urging on lead vocalist Harry. Unlike other violinkus. Thomas is not afraid to depan the conservatory for a back alley or barnyard sound and. like Ike and Tina Turner said. 'do it nice and rough' At one point on the disc. he actually brought to my mind one of the t rue greats of the arguably short field of jazz/rock violin-ists. Don 'Sugarcane" Harris and his sear-ing solo on Zappa's "Little House i Used To Live In front the 1969 disc Burnt Weeny Sedwick Aficionados of new wave (should I call it 'old wave" now?) will most salivate over 'Donch'a Go Way Mad: an old Harry James big band number featuring a supergroup dun by Debbie Harry and Elvis Costello. who also takes a star turn as solo vocalist on Aubergine: another old chestnut featuring Coltnnesque soprano from Nathanson. Then there's a remake of the Blondie hit The Tide Is High.' a reggae/Africanesque interpretation highlighted by Ladysmith Black Ntantbazo-styled background vocals. two and four chops on t he guitar. and a junk-yard's worth of percussion 16 something that might be easy for the jaded to discount as commercial straw-grasping. but ifs also the one offering on this disc that I most grew to love listening to more with each spin

So just how did these Ox rho Passengers come together with a little rock 'n' roller like the Debster? And how did a woman whose knowledge of music seems to be entirely formed by '60s girt groups like The Ronet tes bar the ears to cut this stuff. espe-ciall y with guys of this caliber? "It was thanks to Hal Wilner: explains Natharraoa He produced our last album. jazz Passengers Is Love Oligh Street), our tint all long offering He helped chose the material and a group of guest singers which were appmpr Lite a group that included pec• pk like Mans Staples, Bob borough. Elvis Costello, Jeff Buckley. Jimmy Scott. Freedy Johnston and Harry She avred to tour with uth to va►p►rt it and it just kept de teloping froim there over the past two and a half wean' 'Oddly enough-Unarmed t 0 a ha of jots in high school: says Harry 'Int not really *ell-rounded or wellaalucated in jan. but I tea% wally crazy about Brubrek and Des-mond. Stan Getz and that Pacific Coast sound'

A great deal of the credit for this seam• km musical marriage. howeser. nutat also go to the man who co-produced the proceeding., the legendary Joel Dorn

For theme of you who don't know the name. Dorn is the man who coerced a career of aureola/ classics out of the nwactuial Rashaan Roland Kirk as well as two quintessential 70s divas Bette Midler and Roberta Flack With Individually Misted and his new label that released it. 32 Retools Joel is passing on the torch by work-ing with his son Adam. who is part nets in both these efforts

Those who love the great Kirk, a terri-fyingly fierce saxman best known for play-ing three horns at one time and a couple of flutes with his nose. Individually Twisted provides an interesting coda: 'It Came From Outer Space" This pastiche of weird sound effects features a breathy Coleman Hawkins sax riff and a toy laugh box. one of the little gadgets that continually crept up in the studio and live performances by Kirk. -This is by far the most produced of our records.' adds Nathanson. 'loci and Adam helped make a lot of decisions in terms of material We cut some of the larger compo-sitions. some of the more complex time changes, to go with things that were more song-oriented. more of a groove' As dynamic as this groove music and new disc are. one must really see The Jazz Passengers in the flesh for the full impact. Though their musicianship is of a level where they could stand stock-still and solo and impress the shit out of you. their great musk is supplemented by a great deal of great theatre. endless acting and clowning on stage. the results of Nathanson and his cohorts' unique blend of experiences

A native of Midnvod. Brooklyn. Nathan-son is the product of a musical family a dad who played tenor in big bands and a mother who was a conttervatorytrained pianist Nat hanson began pbying classical cluinet in grade school. nude the all .borough band. but gave It up for a while when the family moved to Florida when he was 14 really got nervous at auditions and didn't do as well as I thought I 'should. eo I gave it up for a few years when we moved down *omit: ekes Nathanson It wasn't until I was 18 and back in New York at Columbia that I started playing again 'My roommate turned me on to acid and John Coltrane at t he same time and that was it: he my*, laughing 1 just practk-ed con-stantly then ran off to San Francisco and played both traditional pis gigs and in Major Churnley's Combined Circus And Pandemonium Shadow Show. a troupe where I actually doubled as a clown

'When I returned to New York. I contin-ued to play straight-ahead gigs with people like Charles Earland. but also got involved in the whole Downtown theatre scene at the La Mama: he continues 'These shows involved more than playing music a lot of acting and off-beat comedy. even accompa-nying a transvestite theatre group named The Hut Peaches It was also where I met people like David Cale iplayteright monolo-gist and sometime Passengers lyricist' That's when 1 also got the gig with the Big Apple Circus where I first met Curtis.'

It was around this time that Nathanson and Fowlkes also became founding mem• ben of The Lounge Lizards. a gig that pro-vided them with their first major critical acclaim and a key musical piece that they would use to help kern The Jazz Passengers

Led by the lanky and somewhat creepy saxman/actor John Lurie. The Lounge Lizards was a conceptual jazz band known as much for the image it projected as for its off-beat approach to avant-garde jazz of the late '50s and early '60s. Some thought it was high art others the consummate artsy put-on Either way. its also where Nathanson and Fawlkes hooked up with Passengers drummer EJ Rodriguez.

'When we left The Lizards, we wanted to do something that was more composi-tional and also more Marx Brothers. more vaudeville.' says Nathanson. laughing 'My interest always lay somewhere be-t wean the Downtown theatre scene. the tie ctet and avant garde jazz Curtis added his own alchemy front tons of calypso gigs and Thejan Passengers were born'

The Jan Passengers' recorded works carer the rata are impressive They include tnu dive% on the tiny Belgian label Crepe-acute. Broken Night. Red Light and De-ranged And Decomposed Imple_ment Your-self an 1994), released on New World Records. two on the Knitting Fartory %irks label. 1991'a Live At The Knitting Factory and 1993's Old Plain Joe. a rid Jazz Passengers Ii Is. on Windham 11111', now defunct High Street label Though they haven't shipped heavy units they have consistently gar nered critical rave% trims the laces of laowe-bedJasi Timm Option and The New York Thies

Even before the ink was dry on the liner notes for their new disc, The Passengers are moving on to new things.

"More theatre and more weirdness," offers Nathanson when asked what's next. "We're working together with Hal Wilner on a new Edgar Allen Poe project where we're setting that old junky death poem, "The City And The Sea," to music, with help from Chris Stein [Harry's ex-partner in life and music during the Blondie days]. Plus writing and performing some new stuff like 'Nazi Samba.' a Wagnerian calypso about a war criminal enjoying the good life and his golden years in Argentina'

With the presence of a marquee-value vocalist. The Jazz Passengers are also steadily moving Uptown. out of smaller Downtown clubs like their longtime home base. the Knitting Factory. to venues like Town Hall and the European festival cir-cuit. where jazz draws crowds worthy of the top-notch rock circuit.

Tor every Jazz Passenger fan out them there are about 6.000 Blondie fans "acknow-ledges Nathanson about the presence of his new vocalist. who is she now working on new material with the original lineup of her old band. 'Even though we're attracting people from that broader rock audience. we're still firmly in the world of jazz —OT whatever it is that We do'

el love playing for the jazz crowds: adds Harry *They're match more of a listening crowd, a little more intellectual and attn. tive. But whatever it is it's still all about get ting a groove going. getting that animal response from an audience Its still very tribal. only ifs a different tribe than the rock one you're used to seeing me incite"

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The Musicians' Exchange, February 1997

Sal Cataldi profiles The Jazz Passengers.


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