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Jazz Spotlight

October 16, 1994|Don Heckman

JAZZ PASSENGERS

"Jazz Passengers in Love"

High Street Records

* * 1/2

Are the Jazz Passengers an unusual group? You'd better believe it.

Is this, their sixth recording, a legitimate jazz album? Without a doubt.

Swinging around in all directions, tossing in fragments of mainstream, avant-garde, pop and theater, it sorely tests even the most liberal definitions of the art. But the bottom line is that this is music--unusual though it may be--that could only have been produced from a jazz sensibility.

"In Love," the Passengers' first vocal album, includes numbers by singers ranging from R&B's Jimmy Scott and gospel's Mavis Staples to pop music's Deborah Harry and jazzer Bob Dorough. The result simmers like a surrealistic stew over a jazz flame.

Fortunately, it's a hot enough flame to sustain interest despite often obtuse lyrics (especially those by David Cale) and a heavy vocal emphasis. Bits and pieces of effective improvisation from saxophonist Roy Nathanson and trombonist Curtis Fowlkes sneak into the mix, and the vibes of Bill Ware play a major role in defining the Passengers' distinctive sound.

Some of the most striking non-instrumental moments are provided by Scott's world-weary tenor, Dorough's epigrammatic "Ring the Bell" (which opens up needed room for instrumental soloing), Harry's strong vocal on "Dog in Sand," and Staples' stylish rendering of "Kidnapped."

A strange, off-the-wall and demanding album? Yes. But it is also a fascinating example of the expanding creative horizons of jazz at the close of the 20th Century.

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor) to four stars (excellent).

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