Thursday, September 29, 2016

Jazz Passengers

Curtis Fowlkes & Roy Nathanson, Toronto, June 1990

AS I SAID IN YESTERDAY'S POST, IT TOOK ME A WHILE TO "GET" JAZZ. Besides a collection of Benny Goodman small band sides with Charlie Christian, the only other jazz record I owned as a teenager was probably the first record by the Lounge Lizards, a band that came out of New York City's punk scene, and who billed themselves with the tongue-in-cheek description "fake jazz."

I bought their first record, which featured a very timely (for the early '80s) mix of moody, film noir-inspired jazz and what we'd later call "skronk," and made me a lifelong fan of guitarist Arto Lindsay. It was probably thanks to his stint in the Lounge Lizards that I was so eager to get a portrait of drummer Anton Fier. Years later, I'd end up at a table in the Knitting Factory in New York sitting next to Lounge Lizards founder John Lurie. I felt like a complete nerd, but I bummed a cigarette off of him, just so I could say I did it. In my defense, I actually did smoke at the time.

Inevitably the fake part of the fake jazz label began to fade, and by the time of their second lineup, the Lounge Lizards were an actual jazz group, playing clubs and festivals all over the world, with great musicians like Marc Ribot on guitar, Dougie Bowne on drums, Roy Nathanson on saxphone and Curtis Fowlkes on trombone. Nathanson and Fowlkes formed a spin-off band, the Jazz Passengers, and in 1990 they came to Toronto for a show.

Roy Nathanson & Curtis Fowlkes, Toronto, June 1990

The club, the Bermuda Onion, was located in what was once a high end dim sum restaurant on the city's most expensive shopping street, in a landmarked modernist building. It was always a strange place to see jazz acts, but the music was undergoing a brief resurgence at the turn of the '90s, and whenever this happens there's always some noble soul who thinks it would be a great idea to open a jazz club.

I opted not to try and shoot the whole band - frankly, they didn't seem like they were too enthusiastic about the prospect - so I asked Fowlkes and Nathanson if they'd like to step outside the club, to a marble-lined stairwell that was deserted after the shops downstairs had closed. It looked good as a background texture, and had the added appeal of forcing my subjects - literally - into a corner, which is always a good portrait tactic, as Irving Penn will tell you.

Curtis Fowlkes & Roy Nathanson, Toronto, June 1990

To be frank, I was relieved when the band expressed their disinterest in a photo, since Fowlkes and Nathanson - tall and short, black and white, serious and comic - provided such a great visual contrast together. I was pretty pleased with how these shots turned out, but I don't know that anyone has seen them since they were shot, over twenty-five years ago.

The Jazz Passengers went on to have a fairly high profile career for a jazz group in the following years, after they teamed up with a variety of sympathetic vocalists including Elvis Costello and Blondie's Debbie Harry. With jazz as an art music becoming increasingly obscure, they understood how it could provide the setting for a competent singer and a worthwhile tune, and made records that clicked with mature listeners with more catholic tastes - perhaps even old punks who knew how noisemakers from lower Manhattan clubs could end up making smart sounds for sophisticated adults.

No comments:

Post a Comment