Despite some interesting personnel in their initial lineup and a memorable debut album, New York’s Lounge Lizards will never be remembered as anything more than an interesting footnote in rock’s history. This has less to do with the “fake jazz” label they took for themselves than with the purely social nature of their rock connection: they played jazz-as-exotica to a hip downtown rock-club audience.
Nonetheless, The Lounge Lizards remains a minor masterpiece for the way it remains true to its Monk-derived jazz (including two covers of Thelonious Sphere himself) by subverting it still further with Arto Lindsay’s atonal guitar playing. Whatever Lindsay may lack as a conventional guitarist, he makes up with an innate rhythmic savvy that never fails to entertain and engage. Ex-Feelies drummer Anton Fier, as a rock player learning the jazz ropes, approaches his kit a bit cerebrally, but ironic detachment was never far from the Lizards’ agenda. Saxman John Lurie’s compositions here turn out to have been his best, alternating a loving, melodic lilt with film noirish exhilaration.
By the time of Live From the Drunken Boat, the Lurie brothers (John and pianist Evan) were playing with a different and less interesting band; the results are slight and forgettable. (Lindsay and Fier went on to lead myriad projects, including, respectively and most notably, the Ambitious Lovers and the Golden Palominos.)
The Lizards joined their producer, Teo Macero (veteran producer/arranger of many a distinguished jazz record), as he indulged his post-romantic orchestral fantasies with the London Philharmonic on Fusion, an uninteresting ’50s “third stream” symphonic jazz composition.
The Live 79/81 cassette (later issued on CD as well) features sharp performances from New York (including their first gig), Cleveland, London and Berlin. The core of the debut lineup (the Luries, Fier and bassist Steve Piccolo) remains intact, but two other guitarists besides Lindsay divvy up the tracks. Nine originals, plus covers of Thelonious Monk’s “Epistrophy” and Earle Hagen’s classic “Harlem Nocturne.”
John Lurie went on to star in and score Jim Jarmusch’s film Stranger Than Paradise, the album of which devotes a side to an unrelated Lurie dance piece called “The Resurrection of Albert Ayler.” His next multi- media collaboration with Jarmusch was Down by Law: Lurie co-starred in the picture and composed the score. Down by Law contains his soundtrack music for that film — played by most of the Lounge Lizards and even alumnus Lindsay — as well as music done for a Betty Gordon film entitled Variety. Although he didn’t appear in the movie, Lurie also composed music for Jarmusch’s next picture, Mystery Train, the soundtrack LP of which is largely made up of appropriate vintage rock’n’roll and R&B numbers.
Evan’s first solo piano album, Happy? Here? Now?, exhibits an introspective sensitivity not always prevalent in the ensemble’s work, but that’s not to say it’s any less stimulating or intense. While “Tesla’s Pigeons” has the power and fury of a piano version of Stravinsky as performed by Birdsongs of the Mesozoic, “Suite From Punch” has such a diversity of feeling, it could easily be the accompaniment to a silent film.
In mid-’86, a new incarnation of the Lounge Lizards — the Luries bolstered by another saxophonist (Roy Nathanson) and a trombonist (Curtis Fowlkes), plus a rhythm section and guitarist Marc Ribot — signed to Island. While the one-show Live in Tokyo continues in the Lizards’ almost-jazz tradition, the in-studio No Pain for Cakes opens up their frame of reference to include influences like Erik Satie and Kurt Weill. And the group breaks the word barrier with John Lurie’s distinctive voice on “Bob and Nico” and the anecdotal “Where Were You.”
The most novel aspect of Voice of Chunk is non- musical: the album was sold by mail-order only. The multi- part compositions are surprisingly humorless, and sound at least as indebted to early-’70s “progressive” rock as to jazz, fake or otherwise. The band’s swaggering vocal chorus on Evan Lurie’s jaunty “Tarantella” doesn’t quite right the emotional balance.
“Tarantella” also turns up, sans vocals, on Evan’s own Selling Water by the Side of the River. His group features Jill Jaffe’s violin and Alfredo Pedernera’s bandoneon (button accordion), lending quite an ocean- voyage-salon air to the tango-tinted tunes. The dark, wistful modalities and harmonies make the album more compelling than a mere exercise in good neighbor policy.