Boom! To celebrate the camaraderie they’ve developed in past 30 years, the Jazz Passengers start this new record by crashing out of the gate with a wallop of horns riding a big splash of rhythm. Yep, its members are getting on in years, but there’s no question that vigor remains one of the celebrated NYC outfit’s most valuable assets. With echoes of Mingus’ soulful uproar in the air, the wily septet kicks off Still Life with Trouble with a rowdy dose of trouble and not a hint of still life. “Paris” may feature sinewy solos by violinist Sam Bardfeld, reed player Roy Nathanson, and vibraphonist Bill Ware, but when it ends, it’s the punch behind the swag that’s most memorable. You can almost hear it cackling as it strolls away, confident you’ve been impressed.
Keeping things lively hasn’t been a problem for this band. With co-captains Nathanson and trombonist Curtis Fowlkes brainstorming a wealth of contextual schemes through the decades, the Passengers been an idea machine. Their origin story dates back the downtown scene of the ‘80s, a milieu that prided itself on catholic interests. How catholic? Fowlkes and Nathanson bumped into each other playing “Beat It” for dancing elephants while making ends meet as members of the Big Apple Circus band. A bit of that absurdity has framed a chunk of what has unfolded since. Whimsy has long been key to the Passengers’ aesthetic; they’re one of the most entertaining groups around.
That means regardless of how boisterous the interplay gets, there’s often a simplicity in the air. On Still Life, groove gets its moment in the sun. Bassist Brad Jones’ “Gleis, Spoor, Binario,” finds an itchy melody on top, but some kind of sideways rumba on the bottom. The Passengers have two drummers this time out, newcomer Ben Perowsky joining founding member EJ Rodriguez. This also adds to the oomph. With Ware’s vibes enhancing the percussion exchanges, there’s plenty of lift-off. The blare of the trombone, the wail of Nathanson’s alto sax, the itchy action of Bardfeld’s lines – polyphony has its pleasures, and by giving everyone a voice, it brokers an invitation that’s hard to resist.
The band’s skills at distillation are on display in “Everyone’s a Jew,” a ditty that manages to reach from klezmer to Ornette. A flourish of sax squall that recalls John Zorn’s Masada motifs finds a way to shift gears into a limber spot for a solo or two, and as Nathanson nods to Rahsaan Roland Kirk, the group also offers a hat-tip to North Africa. Also impressive: the hard-swinging downshift made from the gnarled bari eruptions to the fleet vibes explosion in “Trouble.” For a band that gets together somewhat intermittently, they sure sound super tight.
Part of that whimsy plays out in the vocal department. Four out of nine tracks feature singing of some sort, and though no member could pay the rent on their voice work alone, each manages to communicate the sentiment at hand. “Wake Up, Again!” is a protest/lament with the refrain of “can’t afford to live/can’t afford to die” buffering Fowlkes’ ghostly falsetto (don’t miss the fun YouTube video for this one). On “Everybody Plays The Fool” (yes, the ’73 nugget by The Main Ingredient), a sense of boho cool ignites some R&B philosophy. But it’s the touching tone of “Friends,” where each member grabs a couplet, that’s most charming. It was six years ago when they last actively celebrated their relationship by touring behind an album that placed Peaches & Herb’s “Reunited” at its center. The fruits of their fraternity were evident then, and they’re even more conspicuous here. Fowlkes has long said that they’re “jazz passengers” because the music always takes them somewhere. Spending time with Still Life With Trouble is like sharing a bouncy cab ride with the coolest guys in town.