Subway Moon, alto saxophonist Roy Nathanson's ambitious new album of jazz and spoken word, defies easy categorization. It mixes an accessible brand of avant-garde jazz with R&B, hip hop, Jewish music and multi-vocal harmonies; poignant biographical revelations with humorous observations of urban life; high-art concept with a gritty New York street sensibility. This eclecticism should come as no surprise to those who've followed the co-founder of the playfully experimental Jazz Passengers through his collaborations with Elvis Costello and Deborah Harry and his forays into film, theater and poetry.
With the exception of a tender doowop reading of the O-Jay's hit "Love Train" (with fine vocal turns from trombonist Curtis Fowlkes and bassist Tim Kiah), all the tunes on Subway Moon are Nathanson originals inspired by his daily commute on the Q train from central Brooklyn to his Manhattan teaching gig. The portraits of underground life will draw nods of recognition from anyone who uses the subways and should have special resonance for those well-versed in his three overriding themes: jazz, Jews and Brooklyn. In his poems set to music (or is it the reverse?) riders hide from a crazed fellow passenger behind the day's headlines ("Safer End of Subway Moon"), an overheard conversation of a beautiful Russian girl leads to a hilarious disco fantasy ("Party") and a meditation on the terrorist threat warning ("Orange Alert") evokes thoughts on post-9/11 fears and follies. (A book-length collection of the poems delves deeper into family tragedies and includes a moving remembrance of Nathanson's father's final days.)
All this is merged seamlessly with invigorating instrumentation from a ten-piece band including, among others, longtime Passengers cohorts Fowlkes, Bill Ware (vibes), Brad Jones (bass) and Sam Bardfeld (violin). In place of a drummer, Napoleon Maddox is featured on human beatbox, while subway sound effects (and a clip of Allen Ginsberg, a major influence on Nathanson's poems) are provided by Hugo Dwyer's sampler. And in a nice family touch, Nathanson's 10-year-old son makes a cameo on trumpet. Most of these artists were on hand for a celebratory May gig at Joe's Pub, which proved that the artistry of the CD translates exceedingly well to the vigor of live performance.
Track Listing: Love Train; Subway Noah; Party; Alto Rain; Dear Brother; Orange Alert; Two Horn Rain; New Guy to Look at; Stand Clear; Safer End of Subway Moon.
Personnel: Roy Nathanson: vocals, alto and soprano saxophone; Curtis Fowlkes: vocals, trombone; Brad Jones: bass; Bill Ware: vocals, organ, vibraphone; Tim Kiah: vocals, bass; Napoleon Maddox: vocals, human beatbox; Sam Bardfeld: violin; Sean Sondregger: flute, tenor saxophone; Marcus Rojas: tuba; Hugo Dwyer: keyboard sampler; Gabriel Nathanson: trumpet.
I was first exposed to jazz circa 1973, when I met a fellow who ran Kappy's Record Store over near 10th Ave., on 42nd St. in NYC. We really clicked and when I told him I played piano and went to Music & Art HS, and had just started at City College of NY as a music major, he asked if I liked jazz...I said yes but I didn't know much about it, but that I did have sheet music for many popular 1920's through 1940's tunes by noted composers (Porter; Gershwins; Irving Berlin; Rodgers & Hammerstein/Hart; Jerome Kern; Lerner & Loewe; etc.) that my mother had sung beautifully starting in the 1940's including tons of famous show tunes, and I played many of those songs already
I was first exposed to jazz circa 1973, when I met a fellow who ran Kappy's Record Store over near 10th Ave., on 42nd St. in NYC. We really clicked and when I told him I played piano and went to Music & Art HS, and had just started at City College of NY as a music major, he asked if I liked jazz...I said yes but I didn't know much about it, but that I did have sheet music for many popular 1920's through 1940's tunes by noted composers (Porter; Gershwins; Irving Berlin; Rodgers & Hammerstein/Hart; Jerome Kern; Lerner & Loewe; etc.) that my mother had sung beautifully starting in the 1940's including tons of famous show tunes, and I played many of those songs already. SOOOO... he started me off LP's by Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum, Bud Powell, Errol Garner, Bill Evans, Monty Alexander, Charlie Byrd, and Dave Brubeck... does it get any better than that? ...No, it doesn't. I was hooked!!
I met and had a master class with the late music giant John Lewis, leader of the Modern Jazz Quartet! This was at CCNY in 1977. I was blessed! It was an incredible class... how could it have been anything else?!?!
The first jazz record I bought was...I bought numerous records from my friend at the record store, as mentioned above. He introduced me to nothing but music giants/legends! I think The Dave Brubeck Quartet, Greatest Hits, was actually the first one.
My advice to new listeners... study first--understand the rudiments--solfeggio, keys, scales, and basic chords. Read a book or take a class that includes the study of chord progressions, especially in jazz. It should ideally be a piano class so you can play multiple notes together. Have a good EAR or else it's not really worth it in my view...to become a musician, a good EAR for music is about as fundamental as breathing! Learn to read chord charts--i.e., lead sheets - wherein you play various voicings of the chords--major, minor, dominant 7th (alterations of these, you can learn over time - the basic chords are most important for starters), plus the melody, on the piano or keyboard. If you have to read the exact notes, then it's not the same as actually internalizing it & getting it all into your head. If you can do this, I think you're ready not only for listening to jazz, but understanding many concepts of it! Of course...anyone can listen to jazz... but I think it's so good to also have a grasp of it.