Jazz CD Reviews

The Jazz Passengers – Reunited – Justin Time Records

Eclectic New York jazz band push the jazz boundaries.

Published on September 7, 2012

The Jazz Passengers – Reunited – Justin Time Records

The Jazz Passengers – Reunited – Justin Time Records JTR 8565-2, 48:48 ****:

(Curtis Fowlkes – trombone, vocals; Roy Nathanson – alto/soprano saxophones, vocals; Bill Ware – vibes, vocals; Bradley Jones – bass, vocals; E.J. Rodriguez – drums; Sam Bardfeld – violin; with special guests: Marc Ribot – guitar; Elvis Costello – vocals; Deborah Harry – vocals; Susi Hyldgaard – vocals)

If the Jazz Passengers want to bill themselves as something different…they have a case. Formed in 1987 by saxophonist Roy Nathanson and trombonist Curtis Fowlkes, the duo met as members of the Big Apple Circus. The exotic pedigree continued as they toured with John Lurie’s cult band, The Lounge Lizards. With Bill Ware (vibes), Brad Jones (bass), and E.J. Rodriguez (drums), the group created a theatrical nuance to their music, drawing some comparisons to Frank Zappa.

Over their storied career, The jazz Passengers have worked with an impressive array of singers, including Mavis Staples, Jimmy Scott, Bob Dorough and Debbie Harry. What has never faltered is the up tempo, good vibe of their sound. Their fearless incorporation of topical music context into jazz is uplifting and shifts effortlessly with subtle agility.

The latest release, Reunited is another, eclectic project that is both engaging and idiosyncratic, or in other words pure Jazz Messengers. The opening track (“Wind Walked By”) is a slow, jazzy wail that features the unusual voice of Elvis Costello. Often, guest vocalists will merely sit in with a band. Here there seems to be a conscious effort to build a musical frame around the offbeat vocals. Everything fits together with a sarcastic whimsy (…”Brother can you spare a quarter?”) Roy Nathanson has written a haunting melody that is augmented by his saxophone and the trombone licks of Curtis Fowlkes. Each musician contributes to the instrumental feel. Longtime associate Marc Ribot adds some crisp, jagged electric guitar. Fowlkes and Nathanson play in harmonious union and counterpoint on “Seven”. Bill Ware’s vibe sets up Ribot, violinist Sam Bardfeld and the horns. At the heart of these numbers is an exotic texture that utilizes modulation and tempo brakes.

Each song is very different. A sure-fire highlight is a re-working of the Peaches and Herb title cut. Starting with a Tom Waits inspired “shore leave” groove on vibes and guitar (Ribot a veteran of Waits sessions), the r & b ballad is strange, but moving. Clearly this band is not above having some fun with jazz interpretation. The squeaking saxophone captures the near self-deprecating musical context. For something different, their cover of Radiohead’s “The National Anthem” rings with fierce audacity. Ribot and Barfield offer scorching solos that feed into an improvisational, free-form jam. Within the tough, scratchy mood are graceful trombone accents. The rhythm section of Brad Jones (bass) and E.J. Rodriguez (drums) is up to the challenge of quick transitions and style departures. The quintessential 50’s rock and roll “Spanish Harlem” is rendered as a blues vamp with some Louis Prima/Keely Smith repartee. Ware shines on vibes as the violin and horns generate flourishes.

With a nod to the seventies, “Button Up” glows with funk-driven instrumentation and vocals. Nathanson has a smooth lead voice and the ensemble can lay down some emphatic hooks. There are two interesting bonus tracks withy Blondie’s Debbie Harry (who has performed with the group). These live tracks from 1995 include Think Of Me”. After a highly frenetic opening, harry and the band delivers a jaunty, atmospheric take on love’s tribulations.

The Jazz Passengers are unpredictable, but very entertaining. They appeared this past February at the Portland Jazz Festival.

TrackList: Wind Walked By; Seven; Button Up; Reunited; The National Anthem; Tell Me; Spanish Harlem; Bonus Tracks: Think Of Me; One Way Or Another

–Robbie Gerson

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