A Barbes Residency This Month by Intense Jazz Passengers Leader Roy Nathanson
When you think of solo saxophone, do you get shadowy visions of some guy leaning against a brick wall, playing desolate, mournful phrases that linger in the mist somewhere on upper Broadway in the wee hours? Or is that just a personal observation?
Roy Nathanson played something like that late in a very rare solo show at NYU this past spring, but he also played a lot of much more kinetic material, in a spellbinding display of extended technique. It’s not likely that the Jazz Passengers bandleader and onetime Lounge Lizard will be playing much if any solo material during his ongoing Sunday evening 5 PM Barbes residency this month, but it’s possible. That’s what famous touring artists like Nathanson do here: work up new material and push the envelope outside of what pricy jazz clubs around the world expect from them.
For example, in the summer of 2016 Nathanson played a one-off Barbes duo show with pianist Arturo O’Farrill that was a feral blast of fun, a mix of Carla Bley-esque wildness and some of the (increasingly brooding) jazz poetry that’s helped raise Nathanson’s standing as a connoisseur of New York noir. The NYU show was a showcase for what a ferociously interesting and dauntingly virtuosic player he is. The Jazz Passengers are a song band with the kind of interplay that comes from three decades worth of gigs, but Nathanson doesn’t get enough props for his technique.
Alternating between alto, soprano and baritone sax, he switched reeds in and out of his various axes, explaining his fascination with getting just the right amount of smoke or nebulosity or brightness depending on what the song calls for. The evening’s most spectacular moment was when he played alto and soprano at the same time – with equal parts squall and melody. It was also very cool to hear him play baritone: a lot of alto players double on baritone to get more gigs, but Nathanson made it clear that he was just as much at home in the growly lows as the upper midrange where he’s usually found.
The material was mostly new and unrecorded, along with the first number Nathanson ever wrote – or was at least comfortable enough with to bring to the stage. There was anger, and rigor and intensity in that one – if memory serves right, he wrote it in the wake of his brother’s death. Many of the new compositions explored Jewish themes, although the echoes of both Eastern European Jewish folk music and liturgical melodies were distant and allusive. Nathanson also treated the gathering to some poetry: the most memorable piece pondered what the hell we’re going to do and where everybody’s going to go until the real estate bubble finally bursts and this endless blitzkrieg of gentrification collapses with it. Obviously, Nathanson said all that far more imagistically and succinctly. You might get some of that at Barbes this month.