Concert PREVIEW

    Roy Nathanson wants to change what you think of jazz music.

    As leader of the Jazz Passengers, one of New York’s most adventurous ensembles, Nathanson has had a distinguished career throwing the unspoken rules of the genre out the window. With the group’s latest work, a total re-working of the classic 1950’s horror film “Creature From the Black Lagoon,” Nathanson and his longstanding ensemble further dismantle the barrier between pop culture and high culture, adding both jokes and improvised jazz runs to a brand new soundtrack. It’s all part of an effort on the Passengers’ part to rid jazz of its snooty reputation and make it fresh — an effort that has taken a fun and relevant turn with the band’s latest project.

    Roy and the Passengers first experimented with Jack Arnold’s classic B-film in 1997, when they replaced 20 minutes of the soundtrack and dialogue with their own mix of experimental musical theater and performed it live at Town Hall in New York City. Commissioned to revisit the project in 2003 by the Celebrate Brooklyn Festival, the Jazz Passengers remade the entire soundtrack, including music, dialogue and sound effects, combining their trademark offbeat humor, penchant for musical theater and virtuosic musical talents into a 3-D-glasses-required, avant-garde comedy.

    It’s part of a lifelong passion for Nathanson, who says he’s always been torn between the mediums of theater, where he “was raised,” and music.

    “I was a theater major at Columbia in the early ‘70s. Eventually I decided it was more important to do music, but then later I ended up doing avant-garde theater in the East Village,” he said.

    The Jazz Passengers have always been about pushing the music as far as it could go in a multitude of directions. An early reputation for pop-music experimentation — Nathanson is sometimes compared to Frank Zappa — paved the way for the group’s collaboration with a number of rock ’n’ roll stars, including Elvis Costello and former Blondie member Deborah Harry, who fronted the group on their most highly acclaimed studio release, 1996’s Individually Twisted.

    Humor, too, has been central to the group’s vision, and, according to Nathanson, part of jazz from the beginning.

    “We believe humor is serious,” he says. “It’s a real way to talk about the world, that’s why we’re attracted to it. It allows you to deal with all kinds of issues.”

    The “Creature” combination of comedy and serious music points directly to what the Jazz Passengers do best — mix a lot of fun with world-class musicianship, in the hopes of bringing jazz to the masses with a bit of enlightened pop culture. If the popularity of their current tour is any indication, Nathanson and his band are doing just that.

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