The Jazz Passengers – Reunited
Justin Time Records announces the North American release of Reunited, the new recording by The Jazz Passengers, and its first recording in 12 years. The recording, positively blasting with energy, features the venerable NYC-based ensemble in its original incarnation, with guitarist Marc Ribot (re) joining members Roy Nathanson, Curtis Fowlkes, Brad Jones, Bill Ware, Sam Bardfeld and E.J. Rodriguez for what is not only an undeniably strong record, but arguably the acclaimed group’s best work.
The recording is proof that despite the group’s association with illustrious guests on past recordings and tours (two of whom, Elvis Costello and Debbie Harry, appear on this new work), The Jazz Passengers are a band, and Reunited is a testament to their extraordinary chemistry. This magic can only exist when musicians enjoy a nearly indescribable intuition, coupled with the cohesiveness that comes with longevity. Happily, Jon Pareles’ writing (see above intro) is as true today as the day he wrote it twenty-two years ago.
The infectious onstage witty repartee and undeniable joie de vivre of The Jazz Passengers has perhaps contributed to a perception of the group being less than serious. If ever there was a recording to dispel this false notion, it is Reunited. Here is a serious work that is also highly accessible – and wasn’t jazz supposed to be like this? Reunited, as with all past Passengers recordings, features a blend of group vocals as well as showcased guest vocals, with trombonist Fowlkes leading the way. Along with Grady Tate, he’s got to be one of the best instrumentalists that also possess a killer voice.
“Button Up”is an energetic R&B romp that features Fowlkes on lead with the whole group on ensemble vocals, and it also features some great playing from violinist Bardfeld and guitarist Ribot. “National Anthem” starts as a quiet duo between Fowlkes and Nathanson, then stretches into a completely unpredictable group workout, complete with surf and psychedelic guitar riffs punctuated by sharp, percussive ensemble horn charts. “Tell Me” is a pretty ballad that features great percussion from Rodriguez and lovely trombone licks from Fowlkes, who also provides the vocal. Bill Ware’s vibes are also wonderfully evocative, and in fact hard to single out in any song, so integral they are to the Passengers’ sound.
It could be said that Reunited is jazz chamber music in the same way that Ellington’s music was, as the solos are short, making the proceedings full of intricate ensemble work. The music has its own particular landscape, giving the players the confidence to step out. It’s a sound that’s uniquely their own, yet there is a precedent: think of the way James Brown made his horns part of the rhythm section. It’s also unfailingly diverse, changing as a film does, from scene to scene, with moments of bombast (check out two minutes into “National Anthem”) to the intimate, unpretentious poetry they make of the title track, a #1 hit for Peaches & Herb in 1979.
While Herb has remained a constant in the chart-topping group since its creation, no less than six consecutive women have filled the role of “Peaches.” Hilariously, Fowlkes sings Peaches’ part here (after Nathanson recites the first verse spoken word), effectively crowning him the seventh “Peaches” and the first (known) male one. In all seriousness, the Passengers’ reading is both funny (listen to Ribot’s trick bag here) yet surprisingly poignant. Ribot, a jazz/rock icon in his own right (his contributions to recordings by Tom Waits, John Zorn, Lou Reed and Marianne Faithfull are nearly unimaginable without him), plays his heart out on the album’s first six tracks, with excitingly dissonant yet somehow elegant riffs that are as good as anything he’s committed to disc.
In most jazz groups, the lyrics are not written by its own members, but here we have one of rock’s greatest lyricists (Elvis Costello) singing the album’s first composition, yet it’s not his own work – it’s Roy Nathanson’s composition “Wind Walked By.” The two are great friends, and Costello has contributed to past Passengers records, including Individually Twisted (1996), on which he did co-write, with bassist Brad Jones, the song “Aubergine.” Costello’s performance here is lovely and languid; it’s Nathanson’s reflection on the new depression (“I was afraid we wouldn’t get this record out before the financial crunch was over!” adds the composer and saxophonist). Costello has always sung uncannily in tune, and this is no exception. It’s also got some incredibly tricky intervals, yet the former Declan MacManus sails through without a hitch.
Guest vocal tracks bookend the record, starting with Elvis and ending with two bonus tracks featuring “The Baroness” – as they call her eminence, Debbie Harry – on vocals. Again, it’s testament to her close relationship with the Passengers that she unhesitatingly allowed their inclusion. For years, the rock icon has both performed live and recorded with the Passengers, allowing her the artistic freedom and great fun necessary to keep sane. Here, she has great fun with bassist Brad Jones’ “Think Of Me” as well as her own song “One Way Or Another,” a worldwide hit for Blondie, culminating in Harry imploring the guys to join her on vocals.
Reunited is – as you may have guessed – a play on words. In naming their album after the Peaches & Herb hit, The Jazz Passengers are in fact addressing a number of things: the return of original guitarist Marc Ribot; the life-affirming fact that it’s their first record in a dozen years; and the obviously renewed vigour that any ensemble feels when they reunite after time off, and find that not only does it still work, but that sparks fly!