The Guardian: Gateshead International Jazz Festival 2011
Debbie Harry, the Jazz Passengers and Northern Sinfonia
Alfred Hickling, The Guardian ***
Debbie Harry is best known as the face of Blondie. She’s slightly less well-known for her intermittent collaboration with Roy Nathanson, a stalwart of New York’s free-jazz scene, who is famed for playing two saxophones at once and whose compositions include an ode to a 4bn-year-old zircon crystal found in the Australian desert. Since the mid 1990s, Harry has been an occasional singer with Nathanson’s band, the Jazz Passengers, an avant-garde outfit whose discerning choice of guest vocalists has seen Jeff Buckley, Mavis Staples and Elvis Costello Debbie Harry is stepping up to the mike. But, since the Passengers pursue an arty agenda somewhere between Charles Mingus and Talking Heads, their union with the iconic, new-wave diva makes a surprising amount of sense.
Last year, the Jazz Passengers released Reunited, their first album in over a decade, though this concert, to mark the opening of the seventh Gateshead international jazz festival, draws mostly from a collection of songs first arranged for the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra in 1994. It proves that Harry really can sing, though the voice that once could have cut glass has deepened and warmed into a husky growl. She also carries off a combination of pink leather motorcycling jacket and platinum wig with more confidence than most 65-year-old women might reasonably expect.
The highlight is her desolate whisper through the ironically titled Jolly Street, originally sung by Jeff Buckley, which inspires the two best solos of the evening from Bill Ware’s celestial vibes and Sam Bardfeld’s spectral violin. Yet though the arrangements are tasteful, and the players of the Northern Sinfonia enjoy the chance to show that they can swing, there’s not much room for the edgy improvisation and off-beat humour which are the Jazz Passengers’ trademark. Robert Ziegler keeps everything on course, though there’s nothing like the presence of a conductor to make free jazz sound remarkably constrained.
The encore draws a few plaintive shouts for Denis or Heart of Glass: given that the band’s latest album contains a laconic lounge reworking of One Day or Another, it seems a bit uncharitable not to play it. Instead, a hilariously unstable version of Peaches and Herb’s smoochy disco classic Reunited provides one of the few occasions when the Jazz Passengers’ personalities really spark into life. Tellingly, it’s also the point where the orchestra’s role is to sit and watch.