Jazz Passengers reinvent
by Seth Rogovoy

(NORTH ADAMS, Mass., August 3, 2003) – Just as the most inventive jazz musician can take something as simple or even as inane as “My Favorite Things” and, using it as the basis for re-composition and improvisation, turn it into a work of profound sensibility, so did the Jazz Passengers take the 1954, three-D, creature-feature classic, “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” and reinvent it according to its own kooky aesthetic, in the Hunter Center at Mass MoCA on Saturday night.

The always theatrical- and comedy-minded ensemble didn’t stop with the musical soundtrack, however. While they didn’t tinker with the visuals, the group re-recorded the entire soundtrack, tapping into the familiar impulse among movie groupies to state and restate favorite lines and tinker with them, so that this “Creature from the Black Lagoon” spoke with a very contemporary flavor.

The musicians who overdubbed the dialogue gave the overwhelmingly white, Anglo crew of the doomed ship of research scientists the aura of 21st-century diversity, adding anomalous ethnic and cultural accents, speech impediments, anachronistic phrases and idiosyncratic language that one would have never heard coming from the likes of this middle-American crew.

It wasn’t only the speedy references to modern figures – such as when one character said of another, “You don’t sound like a scientist, you sound like George W. Bush out to get Saddam Hussein” or someone has “the strength of Mike Tyson” – or verbal riffing on the creature’s name – “Gill Man, Gil Scott-Heron, Gill St. John” – that made this “Creature” a living, breathing one. Nor was it the references to cellphones, the outre dialogue (“You can play hide the salami later”), or the creature’s apparent case of indigestion, which probably wasn’t in the original script, that made this “Creature” a lot funnier than the original.

The band’s wit, of course, helped, and no cue was left unexplored. Early in the movie, when someone referred to a piece of underwater diving equipment called an “aqualung,” you just knew it was only a matter of time before the Passengers would provide the punch line, and in perfect comic timing, on the third reference they played the signature riff from the Jethro Tull hit of that name.

But in the end it was the Passengers’ virtuosity and versatility that made this such transcendent, madcap fun. Conductor Norman Yamada kept the seven-piece ensemble on cue, with Bill Ware’s vibraphones tailor-made to provide spooky underwater, harplike effects and violinist Sam Bardfeld playing queasy, bends-inducing swing lines. Bassist Brad Jones provided a menacing pulse to the underwater chase scenes, which bandleaders Curtis Fowlkes on trombone and Roy Nathanson on saxophones – sometimes playing two at once -- punctuated with blasts of Afro-Cuban brass. Guitarist Eileen Weiss and sound technician Huge Dwyer rounded out the ensemble, which added theatricality with verbal and musical ad-libs and, at the end, with the surprise emergence of Gill Man on stage, looking suspiciously like vibist Ware in a creature mask.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on August 5, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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