The Jazz Passengers first came to prominence in the mid-1990s when they released In Love and Individually Twisted with Debbie Harry contributing vocals on certain cuts. But they’re more than a backing band for a punk chanteuse. The band formed in New York City in 1987 with a mission to make jazz fun without compromising form or musicianship. Debbie’s guesting with the band again on Reunited, their first album since 1997’s Live in Spain.
The CD opens with Elvis Costello singing an original composition by the Passengers’ Roy Nathanson called “Wind Walked By.” It begins with a conventional jazz vocal, then unfastens into a lazy, discordant vibe that frazzles the listener with a cacophony of horns only a freeform lover can truly appreciate. The lyrics reference “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” and echo current economic woes with lines like “Time’s is hard now/I lost my home.” The back and forth bohemian approach is the Jazz Passengers trademark. If their goal is to make jazz music interesting and unpredictable, they’ve achieved it. Really, most modern vocal jazz music is nothing more than a skilled vocalist singing torch songs with piano and an occasional horn section.
The cover of Peaches and Herb’s disco hit “Reunited” is barely recognizable until the chorus, between the plucky strings and hush-hush vocals. (And was that a dj scratching a vinyl record in there somewhere?) with discordant horns thrown here and there for good measure. This is the antithesis of the smooth disco original. Vocalist/ sax player Roy Nathanson and Passengers’ trombonist Curtis Fowlkes trade wry, half-sung, half-spoken vocals. It’s the musical equivalent of a Cubist painting, taking elements and rearranging them in unusual and sometimes grating juxtapositions.
Debbie Harry’s contributions close out the CD. She lends a smooth and straightforward vocal interpretation to “Think of Me”, the most mainstream cut on Reunited. Her second song is a hit-or-miss reworking of “One Way or Another” that starts out strong, but gets too “busy” near the end.
The bulk of this CD can be truly enjoyed only by avant-garde jazz aficionados. Reunited has a modern Beatnik vibe, like an Uptown ode to Dave Brubeck and Ella Fitzgerald. You can almost hear Jack Kerouac reading from “On the Road” over some of the instrumental interludes. Those unaccustomed to Bohemian jazz may find it amusing here and there, but it’s too “all over the place” for casual listeners- unless you live in a West Village apartment with bongos and a fireplace.