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John Lurie & the Lounge Lizards

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It's hard to believe, but the Lounge Lizards will soon turn twenty. Perhaps they've lasted so long because they're one of the few bands who do what jazz does best -- pluck ideas, sensations and feelings that are in the air right now and convert them into soulful, compelling music. And while Lounge Lizards leader John Lurie has long been the very personification of downtown cool, his music has a clear spirituality, making for an exhilarating blend of transcendence and street savvy. As someone once said, "We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars."

Lurie's simple, charming melodies stand in sophisticated settings that borrow from some remarkable sources. The band -- always a top-flight selection of musicians -- breaks down in any number of combinations and permutations for a dazzling array of sonic effects, sometimes building to a stunning cacophony, sometimes lapsing into jaw-dropping pools of quietude. It's all on ample display on the Lounge Lizards' stunning new album, Queen of All Ears.

The album title comes from an old favorite of Lurie's, Jimi Hendrix, whose liner notes to Electric Ladyland included the line "And on he walked until after crowning Ethel the dog the Only Queen of Ears..." As a teenager, Lurie and his brother Evan thought the line was extremely funny. The phrase stuck in Lurie's mind for years until he gradually twisted the meaning, taking it to another level. "It's like she's the queen of all music," says Lurie. "But is it for the recipient or for the giver? It's not clear... I don't know what it means."

The original intent behind Queen of All Ears was to try to capture the energy of the band in performance. "But there was no way to capture the ferocity of the live show to tape -- it just never translates," says Lurie. "In the studio you go for something more elegant, more refined. Approaching it that way made it possible for things to happen in the studio that would never have happened live." An example is the two numbers which bookend the album -- "The First and Royal Queen" and "Queen Reprise" -- which came together in the studio almost instantly. "It's kind of like opening and closing the record with a prayer," Lurie says.

As usual, the music is as cosmopolitan as Lurie's home base of New York City. There's a hint of African juju music in "The First and Royal Queen," an easy Gershwin-like swing to "She Drove Me Mad"; the rolling Gnawan pulse of "The Birds Near Her House" explodes into a Coltranesque rave-up via the drummers of Burundi; klezmer, minimalism and cartoon music all infiltrate "John Zorn's S&M Circus." (Besides being an outstanding composer, John Lurie also has the best song titles in the business.)

Also as usual, the ensemble playing is exceptional. "Of course, these guys have to be exceptional players, but they also have to be able to play like they just found their instrument on the street," says Lurie. "And more than that, they have to have the capability of loving each other. In that way, we're much more like the Chieftains than Wynton Marsalis." That kind of teamwork shows up even in the solos -- despite their excellent musicianship, the soloists never showboat and instead play a character, supporting the vision of the song. A splendid case in point is Steven Bernstein's masterful work on "Monsters Over Bangkok," where his slide trumpet becomes a sauntering, lubricious character straight out of a Damon Runyon novel.

Just about everybody in the band gets a chance to shine on Queen of All Ears -- saxophonist Michael Blake charms all the snakes within a fifty-mile radius on "Birds Near Her House," then Lurie's brother Evan takes an eloquent solo on the same tune; ace cellist Jane Scarpantoni summons up almost palpable storm clouds on "Monsters Over Bangkok" while Lurie outdoes himself with his soaring, joyous turn on "Three Crowns of Wood."

And yet for all the axemanship, the human voice plays a bigger part in this album than ever. The electrifying chant that closes "Birds Near Her House" is actually the entire nine-piece band, overdubbed eight times so that they sound like some massive tribal gathering. And Lurie makes sure of his extraordinary vocal skills on the hilarious shaggy dog story "Yak," making manifest the undercurrent of humor which runs through all of the Lizards' music.

The Lounge Lizards emerged from New York's No Wave scene in the late Seventies, at first playing the post-punk circuit along with bands like Pere Ubu and the Cramps. "We started as this punk jazz band," Lurie says, "completely irreverent and basically afraid to play anything beautiful. Everything was tongue in cheek. Then after about three years we tried to take it seriously and it was a disaster. Then our musicianship improved and the music began to take on a life of its own."

All kinds of music -- James Brown, Indian brass-band music, Nino Rota -- began to infiltrate Lurie's compositions, with the music's experimental currents balanced by an unabashed love of big, tough rhythm. Lurie had one of many musical epiphanies when he was in Morocco for the filming of The Last Temptation of Christ and jammed with some local Gnawan musicians. "Instead of feeling like I was hearing what they were doing and they were influencing me," Lurie says, "they had released something in me, something that was really dying to get out that I couldn't quite find."

Soon it got to the point that the band's name barely fit the music any more -- instead of a cool, ironic posture, the music had taken on an uplifting, downright spiritual aspect. These lounge lizards want to take you higher. "It's religious music played by wise guys," Lurie explains.

Of course, John Lurie isn't just a Lounge Lizard. He turned in sensational co-starring performances in the Jim Jarmusch films Stranger Than Paradise and Down By Law, making this bohemian Bogart the toast of the hip independent film set. Lurie became a favorite of some of the world's foremost directors, appearing in Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders, 1983), The Last Temptation of Christ (Martin Scorsese, 1988) and Wild At Heart (David Lynch, 1989).

Lurie's film work doesn't stop there -- the man the French paper Liberation has hailed as "a genius" was nominated for a Grammy for his soundtrack for Get Shorty and has written the soundtracks to ten films -- including Jarmusch films Stranger Than Paradise, Down By Law and Mystery Train, as well as the more recent Manny and Lo.

And Lurie's screen time continues as he writes, directs and stars in his own TV comedy series Fishing with John. The first half-dozen episodes find Lurie traveling the globe with the likes of Tom Waits, Dennis Hopper, Willem Dafoe, Matt Dillon and director Jim Jarmusch. (The fiersomely eclectic soundtrack is also upcoming on Lurie's label, Strange and Beautiful Music.) The project might seem like a stretch for somebody whose primary concern is music, but as Lurie puts it, "Why should Marlin Perkins be the only person who can tell you what animals are thinking?" Look for it on the Independent Film Channel in June.

Movie stardom was not exactly a boon for Lurie's band. "I had a really hard time when the Jarmusch movies came out," Lurie says. "I'd been doing this music and it was my whole thing, and these movies are one-tenth of my energy, and suddenly they were these gigantic things and that's what I was known for."

But then brilliant albums like Big Heart and Voice of Chunk reclaimed Lurie's credibility. The band toured Europe, Japan and the U.S. constantly ever since, winning rave reviews the world over. The Lounge Lizards have been blessed with a perennial allure; the band's following has never abated, and a marvelously mixed following of jazz fans, rockers, young folk and old folks always pack the Lounge Lizards' transcendent live gigs.

What they're all drawn to is the undeniable magic to a Lounge Lizards show. At times, the band seems to practically levitate the audience. "We work hard on this intricate thing and we perform it almost like it's a religious rite," says Lurie. "We release this...thing. It's almost like a cult, except the members change." Does that make Lurie some sort of downtown Jim Jones? "I don't think the guys in the band would go that far," he says. "Which disappoints me."

The New York Times' Peter Watrous wrote of a 1995 show, "The music is amazingly committed emotionally. Mr. Lurie is unafraid of either traditional beauty or the mix of intelligence and pleasure." See for yourself when the Lounge Lizards undertake a brief west coast tour in June, then hit the rest of the country and Canada in the fall.

The Lizards have always featured the cream of the crop of the downtown New York new music scene. "I'm kind of like the Art Blakey of the Lower East Side," Lurie quips. Lizards alumni include Arto Lindsay, Marc Ribot, slide guitar virtuoso Dave Tronzo, Bob Dylan musical director Tony Garnier, Skeleton Key's Erik Sanko, Elysian Fields' Oren Bloedow, Billy Martin and John Medeski of Medeski, Martin and Wood.

The secret lies in Lurie's uncanny sense of how to cast his band so they create well together. "It's not because of musicianship either -- it's more down to a personality/soul/energy thing, how they link together," Lurie says. "It just comes together. Like with this current band, it's like this current lineup has always been the band."

The way the Lounge Lizards connect so directly to all kinds of audiences is almost miraculous -- how can such sophisticated musicianship and songwriting be so inviting? How can so many characters in the band, such a wide variety of influences and ideas coalesce into something so incredibly right? "There's nothing like this stuff, nothing like it," Lurie agrees. Then he stops for a moment and wonders aloud. "Is there?" No John, there isn't.

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