by Steven Pisano
Even back in his heyday, in the 1980s and 1990s, it was a challenge to pin down John Lurie. Was he a band leader (Lounge Lizards)? Was he a film composer (Get Shorty--which garnered him a Grammy nomination)? Was he a first-rate saxophonist? Was he an African American-Jewish singer called Marvin Pontiac, a fictional character he created? Was he an actor, appearing in Jim Jarmusch and Wim Wenders movies, as well as in such TV shows as HBO's long-running prison drama, Oz?
The answer is: John Lurie was all of these things!
But then, seemingly all of a sudden, he was none of those things. Lurie went from being one of the most active and arguably "coolest" participants in the New York music and film worlds, to being forced to drop out of that life due to the debilitating effects of advanced Lyme disease. Since he couldn't perform music, John Lurie has spent most of the past decade painting.
But, Lurie was definitely ripe for a look back at the rich body of music he had created in his prime. This past Saturday at Town Hall, Le Poisson Rouge presented Strange and Beautiful: A Celebration of the Music of John Lurie, the Lounge Lizards, and Marvin Pontiac, part of a multi-concert tribute celebrating Lurie's work. In some ways, the show felt like a wake, remembering a past life gone. But there was no corpse at this wake, and the theatre was very much alive with music, like a New Orleans funeral.
Appearing were old bandmates and friends including younger brother Evan Lurie, Michael Blake, Jane Scarpantoni, John Zorn, Marc Ribot, Steven Bernstein, Billy Martin, John Medeski, and Flea (a longtime friend), amongst many other stalwarts of the downtown New York music scene. Separately, the singers Jesse Harris and Sofia Rei performed a couple of songs, but most of the set list was music for the old band.
Lurie once jokingly referred to his music of the 1980s with the Lounge Lizards as "fake jazz," but to his many fans, there was nothing fake about it. It was hybrid experimental jazz, mixing dramatic movie music with horns, like Ornette Coleman. Many of the pieces Saturday night started off slow, then gradually picked up rhythm and forcefulness until the audience was dancing in their seats.
Finally, the stage went black, and then a plaintive harmonica began to wail out into the darkness, in the style of Little Walter. This wasn't jazz; this was the sound of the blues. A deep voice started to growl, "I've got a bone for you..../I'm a doggy/And I'm naked almost all the time/Bow wow." It was John Lurie as his fictional creation Marvin Pontiac, singing "I'm a Doggy." Lurie looked surprisingly strong and seemed to revel in seeing his friends playing his old music. This was music from back in their youth, and now they were men in the their late 50s and early 60s, revisiting that old exuberance.
Most in the audience couldn't have been older than in junior high school when the Lounge Lizards first came to prominence, with a strong smattering of European languages and Japanese being spoken, making it clear that Lurie's continuing allure extends far beyond New York City. But the feeling wasn't so much nostalgia, as on those PBS fundraisers when old performers are paraded out of mothballs to make viewers feel young again. Here, there seemed to be more a feeling of, "Where have you been, John? We've missed you. Let's stay in touch now....y'hear?"
More photos can be found here.