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Maybe it’s because the Jazz Passengers filter their magical playing through a goofy lens. Or maybe it’s the fact that saxophonist and co-leader Roy Nathanson both looks and acts like Groucho Marx. Either way, something has prevented the group from being ranked with the likes of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers or Art Farmer and Benny Golson’s Jazztet among the ranks of the most important post-big-band “universities.”
It’s certainly not the Jazz Passengers’ origins. The group itself graduated from saxophonist and Downtown Scene progenitor John Lurie’s Lounge Lizards, another circus act of jazz musicians who buffer their avant-garde leanings with punk and no-wave silliness. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, the two ensembles have coexisted in the same blurry manner as George Clinton’s P-Funk mob. The Jazz Passengers served as Parliament to the Lounge Lizards’ Funkadelic.
And it can’t be a lack of activity, either. Like the P-Funk mob, the overlapping ensembles’ members regularly splinter into a zillion more micro-concept ensembles comprising mostly the same musicians.
The recent releases of Curtis Fowlkes and Catfish Corner’s Reflect, Vibes’ With Drawn, and Brad Jones and AKA Alias’ Uncivilized Poise serve to illustrate the disparate musical influences that have made the Jazz Passengers such an intriguing band—while simultaneously isolating the members’ various musical personalities. While none pack the TKO wallop of a Jazz Passengers album, all three teeter on the meeting point of serious musicality and silly antics and achieve varying degrees of persuasive success.
Of the three offshoot bands, Catfish Corner least evokes the nuttiness of the Jazz Passengers. Trombonist Fowlkes’ ensemble takes a stand on mid-’60s bebop that is so straight-faced as to make it seem anticlimactic at first listen. (Maybe that’s the joke.) The record, however, lucidly demonstrates Fowlkes’ hard-bop and funk roots. Fowlkes has a velvety sound that’s animated by his fluid improvisations. A consummate musician, he sounds just as comfortable on his neck-popping grooves from “Blue Teardrops Falling” as he does on trombonist Grachan Moncur III’s modernistic bop classic “The Coaster.”
Reflect’s sound explains its title. Catfish Corner boasts the same musical synergy and compositional craftsmanship as Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. And, although the album ultimately is about as retro as any other post-Motown bop record, the group demonstrates such emotional conviction and relaxed authority that the end results are unabashedly delightful. Except for Duncan Cleary’s grating electric guitar blasts on the fast-shuffling “Walker Snead,” an unfortunate foray into black bohemian beat poetry—Reflect features an all-too-familiar Last Poets-cadenced reading from Sheila Prevost—the album sounds pretty much like those Blue Note classics waxed by Blakey, Lee Morgan, and J.J. Johnson.
Although Fowlkes is billed as leader and has written all but two songs on Reflect, he gives the ensemble breathing space for an array of sumptuous yet precise solos. Sometimes, Fowlkes’ humble demeanor makes him sound like just another member of the three-horn foil alongside alto saxophonist Sam Furnace and trumpeter Russ Johnson. He does, however, take center stage on his shimmering ballad “Ashe” as well as on Victor Young’s immortal “When I Fall in Love,” where his smoldering trombone croons the melodies with swooning rapture. Although Fowlkes may be deficient in ego, he sure knows how to put together a crackerjack band—one of Blakey’s most defining talents.
If Catfish Corner lacks the understated mystique and inside jokes that characterize the Jazz Passengers, the trio Vibes delivers with ample supply. Composed of the Jazz Passengers’ rhythm section—drummer E.J. Rodriguez, bassist Brad Jones, and vibraphonist Bill Ware, whose role as the central voice gives the group its name—the trio exudes the same aloof intensity that informs many of the Passengers’ cinematic soundscapes.
A melodically conscious improviser, Ware often sees his vibraphone relegated to a colorist’s role with the Passengers. His soft-focused sound and subtle approach certainly lean more toward Milt Jackson’s mellow tones than Bobby Hutcherson’s aggressive improvisations. But that’s not to say that Ware can’t funk. On “Cruel to Me,” Jones’ seductive Latin groove, Ware navigates between deep house-like riffs and a nursery-rhyme melody—ultimately intensifying the climax with some well-paced improvisation. Rodriguez’s tight, intricate patterns and Jones’ thick, elastic bass add both textural sophistication and thrust.
Although With Drawn is the trio’s second album, it’s the first studio effort. The studio was a mixed blessing, affording the trio ample room to tweak its sound—and indulge in some distracting overdubs. Rodriguez’s subtle congas nicely complement his tight drumming, as does Ware’s ultra-cool melody on his own “Miles Away” and the collectively penned “Main Space.” But Ware’s horrendous MIDI-synth solos on Bill Wither’s “Lovely Day” and Alan Price’s “House of the Rising Sun” sound embarrassingly sophomoric.
Vibes mostly keeps its avant-garde leanings in check. Instead, the trio opts to make a jazz-informed party album filled with ’70s R&B classics—”Keep On Truckin’” and “Lovely Day,” as well as downshifted funky originals like Ware’s trippy-blues stomp “Down Under.” Rodriguez’s own solo vignettes, like “Squeaky the Clown” and “Oh, EJ,” on the other hand, incite some head-scratching—mostly for their brevity. A solid record with few blemishes, With Drawn is a seductive album that should shine more light on Ware’s largely underappreciated talents.
Bassist Brad Jones, another mostly unsung talent, divides his time with the Jazz Passengers, Vibes, and Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time. He also leads his own ensemble, AKA Alias. Compared with Reflect and With Drawn, his Uncivilized Poise is the messiest of the Jazz Passengers’ affiliates’ new records, but it best captures the Passengers’ sense of derring-do.
Juxtaposing M-Base-inspired funk, Black Rock Coalition wildness, and subpar rap, AKA Alias has the charm of your favorite basement band. But it also has serious chops. Jones’ thick bass lines and rhythmic agility betray his Charles Mingus and Scott LaFaro influences, yet on numbers like “Black Bread” and the playful “Drag Queen Races” he lays down housequaking grooves that beg to be sampled. Guitarist David Gilmore—a veteran of saxophonist Steve Coleman and the avant-fusion group Tribal Tech—wields formidable skills that make the album harmonically intriguing and rhythmically exhilarating.
Uncivilized Poise is most interesting on the dreamy “Guesses” and the eerie “Pocket Prayer 3,” which features Jones delivering some esoteric poetry. Jones’ tenure with Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time undoubtedly influences his music’s openness—the multilayering evident in “Drag Queen Races” and the cacophonic calypso “The Intrepid Storm” is lessened only by D.K. Dyson’s affected vocals. The record turns for the worst on the schmaltzy R&B ballad “Hope Road,” where Dyson’s hokey lyrics, Jeff Lawrence’s bloodcurdling keyboard solo, and an entirely forgettable groove would surely get booted off the stage at Amateur Night at the Apollo. CP