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JAZZ REVIEW

Driving Rhythms

Swinging Deborah Harry Proves She's Not Just Along for the Ride With Gear-Shifting Jazz Passengers

September 07, 1996|BILL KOHLHAASE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — Deborah Harry can swing. Her appearance with the Jazz Passengers on Thursday at the Coach House--before, alas, a disappointing crowd of no more than 100--proved it.

Performing quirky, mostly new material from a forthcoming album, as well as a couple of big Harry hits refurbished in twisted Passengers' style, the seven-piece band took the crowd on a wild but fascinating ride that jumped nervously among swing, funk, reggae, Latin and march rhythms.

Strong beats and loud, brassy excursions broken by sudden stops and turns mingled with plaintive, smoky ballads and ironic laments. The only constant was the feeling that further surprises lay just around the corner.

Harry fit easily into this heady mix, bringing theatrical touches to the lyrics, singing with detached cool at one turn, with aggressive, in-your-face honesty at another. With lyrics, some by Harry, closer to the jazz-driven beat-poets tradition than to today's rhyme-conscious schools of rap and commercial crooning, the songs often brought to the evening a mood of performance art or Kurt Weill-inspired cabaret.

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The Passengers' unique sound came from its unusual front line of saxophone, trombone and violin, a blend that, especially in tight unison, took on an electric, edgy quality. Bill Ware's percussive vibraphone play and a stalwart acoustic bass-and-drums foundation from Bradley Jones and E.J. Rodriguez, respectively, produced varied, almost orchestral textures in which Harry's voice served as a seventh instrument.

"Nazi Samba," with Harry's pseudo-mystical lyric, was among the strangest. After her incantations were delivered over an expressionless, goose-stepping march, the band broke into a sweeping passage that recalled Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" before moving into a samba beat that backed wails and cries from trombonist Curtis Fowlkes.

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From there, a series of head-banging exclamations led into a merengue section with exchanges between Harry, saxophonist Roy Nathanson and violinist Ralph Thomas, then dissolved back into the samba before closing.

This heavyweight excursion was followed by a vibe-driven, light-swing piece, "Ole," that recalled John Coltrane's interpretation of "My Favorite Things."

Nathanson introduced the next song, "Angel Eyes," by playing his alto and sopranino saxophones simultaneously, then constructed an Ornette Coleman-inspired solo on alto alone. Ware's vibraphone added peculiarly spacey effects before the volume jumped in a wild crescendo.

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Harry showed decidedly cool ways with a ballad during "Imitation of a Kiss," a song sung by Little Jimmy Scott on the Passengers' "In Love" recording. Her swooning harmonies in tandem with Fowlkes' trombone made for the night's most serious musical moments.

The crowd's biggest response followed one of Harry's signature Blondie hits, "One Way or Another," as she hung the words seductively over straight-ahead swing from the band. Her way of floating a phrase on this kind of rhythm was particularly effective, generating heat with a certain lazy sultriness.

Equally well-received was an exaggerated reggae version of "The Tide Is High" from Blondie's 1980 "Autoamerican" album.

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