Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Not a Faker

John Lurie gets real

By Jon Garelick

SEPTEMBER 28, 1998:  John Lurie's Lounge Lizards are now pushing close to their 20th anniversary, and they're still trying to get some respect. Which is probably why, near the end of a recent phone conversation, Lurie asks me about the Paradise Rock Club, where the band are scheduled to play on September 27. Is the Paradise okay, he wants to know. When I assure him that it is, he says, "That's good. Because this is really serious, beautiful music; it shouldn't be presented in a trough."

Lurie's concerns are legitimate. When the Lounge Lizards released their first album, they had emerged from the downtown New York art/music scene that produced the "no wave" of the Contortions, Lydia Lunch, and Sonic Youth. The Lizards were a toned-down version of the no-wave noise scene. They played a moody instrumental music equally informed by jazz, pop, and movie soundtracks -- their signature piece was a cover of the noir-ish pop/jazz chestnut "Harlem Nocturne." Their sound and their name were precursors to today's lounge movement (think of them as a proto-Combustible Edison), and it didn't help when Lurie coined the term "fake jazz" to describe it. What's more, Lurie's image as a self-conscious hipster was established by his turns in Jim Jarmusch's mid-'80s minimalist classics Stranger Than Paradise and Down by Law: the heavy-lidded eyes, the tall, slouched posture, the permanently pursed lips, the porkpie hat set on the back of the head, and the deadpan baritone comic pronouncements. To many, the "fake jazz" of the Lounge Lizards was merely an extension of the ironic cool of Lurie's movie persona. Plus, the band's musical ability was suspect. DIY might be the coin of cred in punk, painting, and even film. But in jazz, technical proficiency is a prerequisite, and no one wants to know from a player who can't blaze through the changes of "Cherokee" on cue. The '80s Lounge Lizards were consigned to novelty-act status.

By the end of the decade, though, things had begun to change. Lurie continued to write for film (his most celebrated recent score is for Get Shorty), and in 1989 he independently released Voice of Chunk (which, in a disastrous financial move, he made available through an 800 number). Rather than offering an ironic approximation of another music, the Lounge Lizards, somewhere along the line, had developed an integral ensemble sound that drew on Africa, Asia, and even Eastern European klezmer as sources. Along with Lurie's alto and soprano saxophones, the players included such indisputable downtown heavyweights as saxman/composer Roy Nathanson, trombonist Curtis Fowlkes, and guitarist Marc Ribot.

But management and distribution hassles ensued. There was a live album, and Men with Sticks (Made to Measure/Crammed Discs), an intriguing release of saxophone and percussion, where Lurie, working with the drummers Calvin Weston and Billy Martin (of Medeski Martin & Wood), pushed his African interests. One sustained improvised piece, "If I Sleep the Plane Will Crash," lasted 34 minutes.

Now Lurie is back with a new album and Lounge Lizards line-up on Queen of All Ears (on his new Strange & Beautiful Music label) and a soundtrack album, Fishing with John (also on Strange & Beautiful) that's a companion to his TV series of the same name. That series, originally filmed for Japanese television, has become something of a cult hit on cable. Intentionally or not, the shows parody conventional TV fishing programs. On each, Lurie takes one of his fishing-challenged pals to an exotic locale where they pursue a Stranger Than Paradise plot line that's true to the angler life: nothing happens. Except that Tom Waits gets seasick in Jamaica. Lurie and Willem Dafoe freeze to death ice-fishing on an isolated lake in Maine. And so forth. Occasionally, a fish gets caught. At 30 minutes, the shows are just long enough, and they're hilarious.

Queen of All Ears and Fishing with John show Lurie's music becoming yet more rich, with an even keener sense of proportion and balance. The TV music includes an impromptu song from Waits (the mock-macho "River of Men"), percussion and saxophone interludes by the John Lurie National Orchestra with Weston and Martin, and a couple of string-quartet arrangements that are by turns delicate and ominous.

Lurie's current music maintains a sense of humor without undercutting his serious intent. Often pieces operate like the "process" minimalism of Steve Reich and Philip Glass: layered repetitive rhythms and melodic lines over open harmonies. In the "The First and Royal Queen" (from Queen of All Ears), a repeated piano phrase enters, establishing tonality and rhythm, answered by a similarly repeated short cello figure, then a blipping guitar phrase (conjuring Japanese strings), another guitar figure, bowed bass strokes, the rock and thump of percussion, then a longer sax line. More and longer sax lines enter until there's a growing convocation of birdlike voices. It's a little perpetual motion machine of a piece, with a light, funky groove. On "Scary Children," a rocking dissonant creepy horn figure alternates with one of Lurie's noir-ish blues saxophone themes.

Other pieces are more complex, contrasting more-varied textures and colors in succession. The African-like theme of percussion, bass, and soprano sax on "The Birds Near Her House" evolves through varied moods, including a rhapsodic/pastoral piano solo by Evan Lurie (John's brother and longest-term collaborator in the Lounge Lizards), a Coltrane-ish tenor solo by Michael Blake, beautifully modulated dynamics (from solitary solo voice to massed, aggressive percussion), and a final farewell tribal vocal chant by the band.

Lurie knows how to exploit texture and color, and Queen's line-up (nine players) gives him maximum flexibility. Whereas Ribot could tear off bluesy rock guitar solos, Dave Tronzo's role is more orchestral, here lending the perfect rhythmic color, there an African ju-ju guitar riff. Likewise, Lurie can conjure the plucked string instruments of Japan, India, or Africa with cello, bass, or guitar. When Lurie gets in a European oom-pah café-band mood, Steven Bernstein's various muted trumpets can suggest both Ellington and Weill. Roles shift constantly, and it's a trick to identify the various saxophone sounds. Lurie himself often favors a beautiful, almost classical-sounding alto tone as an adjunct to the Eastern-tinged wail of his soprano (it will be exciting to fix sounds visually when the band play the Paradise). There's some rollicking funk here, too, especially on the finale piece, "Yak," where Lurie's spoken narrative is at its deadpan absurdist best.

The self-taught Lurie generally writes with the aid of keyboards, guitar, or his saxophones. "On 'Scary Children,' every note is written. Then some songs are completely up to the band. I'll come in with an idea and we'll rehearse around it and I'll listen to the tapes." Although Lurie can write notation, he says, "I'm really slow at it." Bernstein, who's also worked with Don Byron, helps with the paper work, "especially on the movies, where he really makes it easy. Because when the ideas are coming, they come so fast that if I'm writing the stuff down I lose half of them. I feel comfortable enough to write around him, and he's really good at getting that stuff down."

Lurie's sectional approach to his pieces is similarly guided by strong intuition -- it's not an arbitrary mix-and-match deal. "She Drove Me Mad," he explains, "kind of opens with the sirens, that doppler effect wee-do, wee-do, wee-do, and some of us going in and out of tune, and then it goes into this kind of sex-blues line and the juxtaposition of the two. If you just started the song off with the boo-ba-dah-ba-boo-bah blues line, it would sound kind of trashy, but coming off that other more ethereal siren thing, it sets it up in a great way."

Lurie has credited some of the maturity of his later music with his trip to Morocco where he worked on the filming of Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ and jammed with local Gnawan musicians. "Instead of feeling like I was hearing what they were doing and they were influencing me," he's said, "they had released something in me, something that was really dying to get out that I couldn't quite find." Despite its sectional juxtapositions and varied sources, Lurie's music is shapely, whole -- it doesn't feel like a pastiche. "I don't think of 'eclectic' as good -- the vision has to be there or why bother?" The African-percussive side of "The Birds Near Her House," he points out, came from Billy Martin's fascination with the drumming of Burundi in West Africa; it was actually the last part to be added to the composition, after Lurie and bassist Erik Sanko had developed the main themes. "It wasn't like we were listening to Burundi drums and developed the song around it."

It's a long way from "fake jazz." Lurie has called the band's current mode "religious music played by wise guys." The Lounge Lizards' progeny are impressive -- the Jazz Passengers, Ribot's Rootless Cosmopolitans, Medeski Martin & Wood, players like Arto Lindsay, Brandon Ross, Anton Fier, Dougie Bowne.

"People who weren't into what we were doing latched onto that [fake jazz]," he says. "Which is fine, if you're some jazz purist and you can call this fake jazz in a disparaging way. But now you can't call it that. My guys can play better than anyone that I know about." These days, the comparisons or labels don't come easy. The late critic Robert Palmer described the Lizards as "west of Charles Mingus and east of Bernard Herrmann." I mention Carla Bley circa 1977. "We're on our own somehow, " Lurie offers. "And it's weird, because we started as such a campy thing. But I know the music is great. I just have to wait for people with ears to hear it."

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