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Jazz Review : Can Blondie Sing Jazz? Depends on the Tempo

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Can Deborah Harry sing jazz?

The question had to be on the minds of some people at the Coach House Wednesday night when the former lead singer of the pop group Blondie appeared with a New York-based art-jazz group, the Jazz Passengers.

The answer: sort of.

Of course, judging by the way her arrival on stage was greeted by rousing applause, whistles and shouts of “Blondie!,” most people didn’t really care how she sang. Just seeing her seemed to be enough--and she looked darn good for a 49-year-old. She wore skintight black-and-white capris (emblazoned with what looked to be the names of punk bands), a black shiny polo shirt and black shoes.

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Anyone who was there strictly to hear her probably gave her mixed marks for her decidedly game participation. She had some heavy ground to cover in rendering selections from the Passengers’ new High Street album, “In Love.” Many of the tunes, such as the fast-then-faster “Kidnapped” or the arduous “Handsome Man From Fiji,” have difficult, angular melodies, and Harry negotiated their hard passages with aplomb.

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But the lyrics to these tunes--written by Passengers Roy Nathanson, who plays saxes, Curtis Fowkles (trombone), Bill Ware (vibes) and others--are complex, often resembling free verse, and Harry hadn’t memorized them yet. When she read them from a music stand, it created a sense of her not being fully inside the songs, and therefore not quite believing them.

And that emotional distance was not fully bridged by her alto, which is not particularly strong; there is a sweet-then-cloying “little girl” quality to it. Often, she was unable to cut through the Passengers’ playing, which ranged from sympathetic to bombastic.

Now and then she would use dramatics--running her hand through her hair to express anguish, or waving her arms around or moving her hips in circles--but such mannerisms did little to help her bring the songs across.

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When the tempo slowed, though, and she could really stand front and center and just sing (as during the languorous “Imitation of a Kiss” and the lyrical “I’ll Pray For You”), she made the material hers and the songs had a deeper impact.

The Passengers (other members include Brad Jones on bass, E.J. Rodriguez on drums and Margaret Parkins on cello) are an energetic bunch with a rhythm team (primarily Rodriguez and Jones but also Parkins and vibe player Ware) that underpinned numbers with the kind of dazzling and empathetic interplay that lets free-wheeling jazz really soar.

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Nathanson, working out on tenor, alto and soprano saxes, offered solos that mixed histrionics, humor and nice round notes. Fowkles was more conservative, but his big fat sound had a serious bite, and his easy-swinging phrases had good, hard edges. Ware and Jones added solid improvisations.

Naked to the World, a folk group from Los Angeles, opened with selections from its eponymous debut CD. Ardent lead singer Kevin Fisher was abetted by violinist Daryl S., who added colorful touches by playing through a synthesizer.


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