Anybody who thinks of jazz guys as self-conscious artistes probably hasn't heard the totally looped-out New York-based outfit The Jazz Passengers. The truth is, you can't take yourself too seriously to play behind a lyric like "Don't say, 'Oh, haha' till you feel the Baja."
That line from "Oli," a song about throwing off all your cares and driving down to Mexico, is pretty indicative of The Jazz Passengers' aesthetic of total ridiculousness, an aesthetic that informs most of the songs on their latest LP, "Individually Twisted." The Passengers have always been big on musical jokes: Curtis Fowlkes' trombone and Roy Nathanson's alto scramble around each other in a screwball game of tag; Bill Ware's shadowy vibes clatter and dance around this or that vocalist -- the Passengers have worked with a number of different ones, Jimmy Scott and Jeff Buckley among them -- like a shimmying cartoon skeleton.
But on "Individually Twisted," just as on the Passengers' last LP, the fabulous Hal Willner-produced "In Love," playfulness never overshadows craftsmanship. Once again the Passengers have managed to strike that delicate balance -- to produce an album of largely goofy songs that resist lapsing into heavy-handed jokiness.
Ware's vibes set the tone for this record: Supple and mellow as they are, they seem to push to the forefront on nearly every tune, giving the record a relaxed, easy feel. Nathanson's phrasing is delightfully off-handed and conversational, and his tone is more buttery than ever. The band members -- also including Brad Jones on bass, E.J. Rodriguez on drums and Rob Thomas on violin -- know how to follow a vocal line without overpowering it, but maybe even more important, they never fade into the woodwork, either. Even the band's ballads have a beautifully sustained energy: The most melancholy songs on the album -- the exquisite original "Imitation of a Kiss" and a standout reading of "Angel Eyes" that's like an improvisational mosaic -- fairly vibrate with inventiveness, even as they stop you cold with their gentle, rueful beauty.
Nearly all the 12 songs on "Twisted" are sung by the Passengers' vocalist of choice these days, Deborah Harry, with Elvis Costello as guest on two tracks. Although Costello's vocal textures are gorgeous, his phrasing is a little too labored on "Aubergine" -- it's reminiscent of his strained collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet, "The Juliet Letters." He fares much better on his duet with Harry, the utterly winning "Doncha Go 'Way Mad," probably because he's fearless about coming off as a good-for-nothing lout. In that song, a dialogue between two lovers after one of them has been caught playing around, he puts the schmooze on Harry in a big way. "Come and kiss me just to prove you're glad/Baby, baby doncha go 'way mad," he sings, with a charming slipperiness.
But it's Harry who's the real star of "Twisted." She has been playing live dates with the Jazz Passengers for several years now, and has easily made the transition from pop diva to jazz stylist. As hard as it is not to immediately associate Harry with Blondie, there are times when it seems as if these are the songs she was born to sing. She radiates supper-club elegance in the Neil Hefti/Jon Hendricks cocktail-hour treat "L'il Darlin'" and breezes through "Oli," her vocals as weightless and as lustrous as chiffon. And on "Angel Eyes," she shows a newfound control that's nothing short of remarkable. When she hits the song's last line ("'Scuse me while I disappear") she sustains the last note with an almost unbelievable strength and clarity. The horns swell up behind, their sound melting into hers. When they fade down, you realize she's still holding out the note, unwavering and powerful: She's got a grip on it that just won't quit.
Harry's odd blend of tenacity and nutball humor make her the perfect match for the Jazz Passengers. It takes balls to play behind a line like "Don't say, 'Oh, haha' till you feel the Baja." But to play it behind a singer as ballsy as Deborah Harry? Let's just say the Jazz Passengers could teach the Marines a thing or two.