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Roy Nathanson: Auditory Circus

By Published: May 27, 2008

New York Melting Pot

AAJ: New York is such a cultural melting pot and your compositions draw from such a wide field of sources. Could you have found this artistic voice anywhere else in the United States?

RN: No. I definitely don't think so. And that's an interesting point. That was one of the coolest things about the East Village at the time too, was that since I really came from New York; it wasn't like I just visited New York, my roots were so Brooklyn. And in the way people do these things, these American things...being with Curtis we covered the Jewish, black, Brooklyn experience and tried to bring Vaudeville and bring the sort of intellectual tradition of those things together in some way. That was the idea. We were conscious of that.

The interesting thing was that the first gig we ever did with the Passengers, which was at the Knitting Factory after we had been in the Lizards for years. We had a reputation; the Lizards would pack the shit out of that place. And people all came out for the Passengers gig and Marc (Ribot) was on the gig and E.J. (Rodriguez) and Brad (Jones) played bass—originally we had Tony Garnier but then Tony got a job with Bob Dylan, which he still has—and Bill (Ware). It was completely packed. We got a rave review in the Times; it was like OK this is the next great band. The next gig we had, 90% of that audience didn't come and it was because they perceived something that was very obvious; it wasn't the Lounge Lizards and it was not related in any way to pop... John (Lurie) was self-conscious of the iconography of what he was doing; even if we thought we were performers.

Plain Old Joe (Knitting Factory, 1993), which I have 8 million copies of, is actually the history of the Passengers... and of the whole downtown scene. Because we were kind of the first wave and then really got popular from the Knitting Factory. You know Zorn had already been popular... (the) Lizards had already been popular. But like two months into the Knitting Factory, we played and we were kind of like a Knitting Factory world hit! We did the first tours of the Knitting Factory. So it looks like we're going to just have this thing with Curtis [Fowlkes] in the early Passengers... and I was the MC and then we just both played. So we just started as me and Curt just doing duets together really, then we added all these other people.

Roy Nathanson

Then Bob Appel who was a founder of the Knitting Factory with Michael Dorf, got this job at Windham Hill. And Windham Hill was starting a new company called High Street, which was supposed to be their answer to Electra Nonesuch. They hired us as the first act. So that was our first major label thing and the idea was to get really good singers to do the shit that we had already been doing, with just us... But we still wanted to make the singing secondary to the playing. That was the thing that was cool about the Passengers was that we had vocals and we had this kind of theatrical stuff; but that was always second to the compositions and the playing. That way it was always a very serious jazz band... like Louis Armstrong's Hot Five or like the Art Ensemble.

AAJ: Have you ever had an audience just not get what you were doing or given the nature of your work do you mainly get the already converted?

RN: I think at this point I have been around a long time and I think I've had my ups and downs... There was a time in the early '90s when the Jazz Passengers was really the next big thing. If you went back to the New York Times you'd be amazed to see Curtis's picture, with me, on the top and the small little picture of Cassandra Wilson and stuff like that. We really looked like the next big thing and then it wasn't. So I think I have been blown higher than I should be... and then I have been blown lower than I should be.

Now things seem to be definitely back to something, for sure. I mean I just did this enormous gig in Paris. I think that when I play in New York, people come out and I think the people who come out now really do know what I am about. I have enough history that I very rarely hear anybody being surprised; except for a new piece, or a different poem, or a different idea. I'm 56 years old now and I think that my career trajectory has been so specific that I think that's true basically.

There's been like three or four times where people thought they were gonna make money on me; big record companies put money into the Fire At Keaton's Bar & Grill album (Six Degrees, 2000)... and put money into the thing with Debbie (Harry) doing vocals... Fire At Keaton's Bar & Grill was really the last time and that was just in 2000 it really wasn't that long ago. In the early '90s people really thought they were going to put big money into the things and the fact was it's so in between everything and what I do is so weirdly specific.

Even more recently I had a radio play, the thing about my father in the hospital; that was originally a script wrote... Chantal Akerman a really famous Belgian director who's done also some pop movies but she's a serious, serious intellectual Jewish holocaust survivor. I was in the movie of hers 'cause I did some acting during all of this stuff. And then I wrote that script with her sort of helping me and she had actually raised money for me to do a big giant movie of that; like $6 million dollars. And then she cancelled out saying that it was too much my script she couldn't figure out a way to make it hers. Which was fine but then they pulled the money out, that's why we ended up doing it just as a radio play... So I think by the time I'd done Sotto Voce (AUM Fidelity, 2006), it's the first time finally in my life that I really felt satisfied. I don't expect to fill big halls, any of that kind of shit...

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