The Jazz Passengers: Individually Twisted

COMPOSERS: The Jazz Passengers
LABELS: Essential
PERFORMER: Roy Nathanson (ts, as, clt); Curtis Fowlkes (tbn, v); Rob Thomas (v); Bill Ware (vb); Brad Jones (b); EJ Rodriguez (d); Deborah Harry (v)
CATALOGUE NO: ESSCD 578 (distr. Castle Communications)

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The Jazz Passengers have been toiling for recognition on Manhattan’s Downtown scene since the late Eighties, evolving out of a saxophone-trombone duo of Roy Nathanson and Curtis Fowlkes in 1987.

As their early albums such as Deranged & Decomposed (1988) and Implement Yourself (1990) revealed, they rearranged the jazz tradition in startling and imaginative new ways to come up with an ensemble voice that was uniquely their own.

Rooted in solid and thoroughgoing musicianship, they mixed the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Sun Ra with Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong, and added a little Marx Brothers to the mix. The result is a triumph of the unexpected, often achieved with a humorous flourish.

Maybe in the conservative Eighties and early Nineties the world was not ready for such avant-garde merrymaking. But in 1994 came The Jazz Passengers in Love, produced by the highly eclectic Hal Willner, with a cast of guest artists that could only make sense with him at the helm, including Debbie Harry, former new-wave diva of Blondie. Impressed, she said that if the Passengers wanted a vocalist, she was up for it.

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Since going out on the ‘Jazz Passengers in Love’ tour of 1994, she has become a regular, and excels in her new role, alternating worldly-wise charm (she’s 51) with coy little-girl-lost-isms (she looks 27). Her presence has focused long-overdue attention on the band, who have responded with their finest album yet, a superb piece of conceptualising – funny, bizarre, jagged and stimulating. They are also highly original, something that is at a premium today. SN