Roy Nathanson has always been a storyteller. In the late 1980s, his band with Curtis Fowlkes, called the Jazz Passengers, echoed the voices he heard from his New York streets. Deranged and Decomposed and Broken Night/Red Light, both nearly impossible to find recordings, spoke of multi-ethnic ramblings, preachers, and strange drugs. Nathanson also wrote music for performance artist David Cale, accenting his tales. Later work with the Lounge Lizards and the nineties reincarnation of the Jazz Passengers with vocalist Debbie Harry of Blondie fame, further broadened Nathanson's musical palate. He is a showman with an inclination for burlesque, a joke and a good time.
Fire is the full realization of his storytelling. He constructs an imaginary tavern, with an assemblage of patrons and odd characters that include Deborah Harry as Cups, the bartender everyone lusts for, Elvis Costello the narrator, Richard Butler of the Psychedelic Furs as the would be arsonist, and various patrons that include a micro and a macro physicist. Not since The Who's Tommy or, well...The Van Trapp families exploits has musical theatre captured my imagination. Nathanson's theater is all about the bar's characters. Scored with tangos, a saxophone quartet, funk, organ grease, and Jazz Passengers circus music, the musical vignettes shed light on the tragic night of the fire, hint at relationships and turmoil, before disappearing into the smoke.
Nancy King and Kenny Washington sing/scat "Bar Stool Paradise" ala' "Moody's Mood For Love" at true lush life where a few drinks create eternal love, at least for tonight.
Nathanson casts his musical theatre with top musicians and eclectic styles. Where else can a B3, as if in a make believe jazz night, play opposite a cello and Dobro "kid song" next to a love song between two gay particle physicists? Somehow Elvis Costello's voice has become the narration of our times and Harry's graduation from Blondie signals a collective call for all of us to grow up already. Nathanson has given us the postmodern-Cheers, then burned it to the ground. See, jazz can be fun music, it can be theatre, and it can tell stories.