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Roy Nathanson: Auditory Circus

By Published: May 27, 2008

Debbie Harry

AAJ: A song by Serge Gainsbourg was arranged by you for Debbie Harry, for a Virgin France compilation (1997). The more casual listener immediately associates her with Blondie, but she has worked to great effect with you many times including collaborating with The Jazz Passengers. How did this partnership initially start?

RN: Debbie's thing was Jazz Passengers In Love (High Street, 1994), this was the first of the vocal records. And Debbie was really good. She got to be a real good singer. I didn't put her on there because I thought she was just going to be famous, it really was because she was campy. She understood the kind of irony that I came from in the East Village. She had that same relationship to downtown theater that I dug. And so she was able sort of act the lyrics in a way.

I knew Hal Wilner, I had done stuff with Hal Wilner. I wrote a song for Annie Ross called "Imitation of a Kiss" that Jimmy Scott sang on the record, In Love (Windham Hill, 1994). I had worked and done few other things with Hal, and so we got Hal to produce that record for that new company and we got a bunch of these different singers to sing. Actually the truth was I barely knew Blondie but I knew Debbie slightly from the old days and mutual friends. I knew she would get my lyrics, which I wrote with my friend Ray Dobbins so we co-wrote the song "Dog In Sand." That was the first time I actually met Debbie. Then we had to do a tour for the record we just asked her if she wanted to do the tour, she was all into it... We did the tour and she was so cool it was ridiculous. Then we did these little tours in Europe that were regular jazz tours where she would schlep around her suitcase.

Roy Nathanson / Jazz Passengers

The crazy thing was...and this is amazing, Thomas Stowsand was the booking agency with the Saudades Agency in Austria, he was the main jazz booking agent in Europe; he booked everybody... the Lizards, Wayne Shorter, everybody. I called him and told him Debbie Harry was interested in touring with us and do you want to book the band? And he said, "Well, nobody knows who Debbie Harry is. Now if you went out with D.K. Dyson..."

But then [on the tour] there were people yelling out "Play Blondie tunes." They did do that. When we were first on tour in America they totally did that... On the first tour they would always yell out "Blondie." But the thing is people are not stupid, they find out... that's kind of the message of that Passenger's thing. They were there for some other reason. And the same thing when people would come out for Debbie, the first couple of crowds were like crazy, tons of people would come. After that...not that many people came. We definitely had good crowds, but was not anything like she would get normally because they knew they weren't gonna get that. So they liked what they liked. We got an interesting mix of people. It went a couple of years; then I got married, I had a kid really kind of late in my life and the Debbie Harry thing was over.

But regardless we sort of got deflated from being her background band. So by the time I had my kid and the Passengers weren't playing I would be playing gigs for nobody. So I had couple of gig years that I hardly played for anybody.

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Words And Music

AAJ: Both lyrically and in the construction of your pieces there is a definite literary bent. You cite author Italio Calvino as an inspiration. What other authors feed your head?

RN: Well you know I got this graduate degree in poetry in the last few years and that was really great because I got to read way more than I had read before. I had always liked Whitman and I love Ginsberg... I like Langston Hughes, but to say those people influenced me I don't think... I have read a lot of people that I really like and actually not even super famous. There is a friend of mine named Jeff Friedman who is a great poet.

Back in the day I was really influenced by Calvino. I mean I used to carry Invisible City everywhere you know. And I just liked the idea of this kind of surreal stuff. I was influenced also by films, Louis Bunuel, I love Almodavar. I love the Spanish surrealists, like Antonio Machado's poetry. And I love the Marx brothers. I read tons of the S.G. Perlman. There is a poet from Pittsburgh named Jerry Stern. I mean a lot of them are Jewish, that's definitely true. I guess there something in there somewhere. Ginsberg was one of the first people I ever listened to. I'm friends with Anne Waldman a little bit but Ginsberg was special for me because I love that incantational thing. There are other poets from that same time like Philip Levine. I did my paper on some of the early Amiri Baraka films like Meditations On Twenty Volume Suicide Note. I love some of that stuff... and Gabriel Garcia Marquez of course. You can't not love Marquez.

Roy NathansonAAJ: From your time in The Lounge Lizards to Marc Ribot's Rootless Cosmopolitans to your duo project with keyboardist Anthony Coleman there is an everything, but the kitchen sink aspect to all the records you are on. At this point in your career would you find being on a strictly straight ahead jazz date artistically limiting?

RN: I just did this thing on the music of Eric Dolphy with Ross Johnson and Myra Melford. And we are going to make that a project. We just did it at American hall; there is some live concert footage on the web if you want to check it out. This has been kind of a cool year, because after doing this degree in poetry, now I am sort of getting back to playing. I really wanted to build the playing and the speaking, the language thing together. Now that I have done that, I'm getting back into playing.

What's really cool about doing this is: I am 56 and have been playing professionally for 35 years... and to do this Dolphy stuff was so great because as a player he's definitely, hands down, my favorite player. I always loved that it was swinging so much and that it had just this intervallic idea that is compositional. He was taking, building melodic ideas that were (like) shapes. I just dug that so much. And that he wasn't really hearing the chords... Not that he wasn't hearing them at all, but they were more like seasoning.

George Schuller's father, Gunther Schuller, has these charts that he arranged for Dolphy that he never did. So we performed two of them. So it was me, Myra, Brad Jones...who was amazing on bass with all this stuff. And we did all the stuff from [Eric Dolphy's] Out To Lunch (Blue Note, 1964) and we did a couple of other things. It was the first time I did a gig like this after all these years... You can't say that this is a straight-ahead gig, but there was no poetry... And it was repertory, so for me to do a straight up a repertory gig... I totally, totally loved it; because it was a guy that I love. I could do Ornette or Dolphy or Mingus; that I could do because that made sense to me.

In the last year I transcribed tons of this stuff, I didn't write it up, but I learned tons of solos and that's what I practice now. All I practice now is Bach; Cello Etudes is the warm up... and then the Dolphy stuff. We're going to do something with it definitely because Myra is real into it. We did it the once just a month and a half ago, right before I went to Europe... and I'm going to make a record of the subway stuff on Enja, in the beginning of August.

Roy Nathanson / Jazz Passengers

>I am playing the Vision Festival in June [2008]. The French kids are coming to do the whole big version of the subway thing, they wrote all these subway poems; but they're not going to be on the record. It's just going to be Sotto Voce on the record with the Bill (Ware) as a guest. I've also arranged with Bill for this really good singer, Susie Hildegard... I'll be doing some touring with that stuff.

We've got to book the Dolphy thing. Somehow we're gonna make a record of this. It's kind of a couple of projects down the road. Even though we just played the gig, I would doubt that we'll do another thing with it until possibly the winter, or spring of next year... it takes a long time to get a thing done.

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