30 years later, three bands from new york’s downtown scene unite for one night

Posted December 12, 2017 11:46 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — Near the end of an hourlong set at the Kitchen on Saturday, the Jazz Passengers worked their way into “We’re All Jews,” a playful and pungent original with a bawling melody. Saxophone, trombone and violin all tangled as the bass and vibraphone built a dicey polyrhythm underneath. The tune’s melody almost name-checked the early years of Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time, but really it went past that. It reached back and grabbed onto Coleman’s own reference points: the chirruping bebop of Charlie Parker, Southern soul saxophone, the old Jewish prayer songs that he loved.

The Jazz Passengers were the second of three bands on the bill for a concert celebrating their intertwined histories on New York’s old downtown scene. The other two, Kamikaze Ground Crew and the Microscopic Septet (also known as the Micros), were founded in the early 1980s. The Jazz Passengers started in 1987. The three had never shared a joint bill, but their members have known and occasionally worked with one another for decades.

Thirty years on, these artists are still very much engaged. Both the Jazz Passengers and the Microscopic Septet released winning albums this year — the Passengers’ “Still Life With Trouble” and the Micros’ “Been Up So Long It Looks Like Down to Me: The Micros Play the Blues.” Doug Wieselman, a reeds player and co-founder of Kamikaze Ground Crew, joined with the longtime Kamikaze drummer Kenny Wollesen and the cellist Jane Scarpantoni to release the beguiling “Somewhere Glimmer,” under the name Trio S.

And their history feels newly relevant. The downtown scene, centered in Soho and the Lower East Side, where rents were stable but the streets weren’t always safe, grew out of many things: punk rock, salsa, loft jazz, Manhattan’s waning big band tradition, off-off-Broadway, radical poetry. And it lived in contrast to a straight-ahead jazz renaissance that lasted through the 1980s (the divide was much oversimplified by journalists at the time, but the two scenes were certainly foils). Nowadays, neo-classicism in jazz appears to have played itself out; interchange and overflow are understood as inherent to making creative music.

But with rents flying, the city doesn’t really accommodate artistic enclaves that are as rooted and stable as the downtown scene was. What about claiming some shared physical space? Does that still matter? What about communities centered on performance? Those are some of the downtown precepts that haven’t taken as easily.

“John Cage talks about this — how theater is a big thing, and music and writing are both subsets of that. It’s all performative,” said Roy Nathanson, the saxophonist and a leader of the Jazz Passengers, a day after the concert. He and trombonist Curtis Fowlkes, the Passengers’ other leader, worked together in the Big Apple Circus before starting the band. Throughout their history, the Passengers have collaborated with poets, dancers and playwrights.

Kamikaze Ground Crew, which opened the concert on Saturday, has a similar history; the band was originally founded in San Francisco as a backing ensemble for the Flying Karamazov Brothers, a juggling comedy troupe. Long scattered about the country, the band’s members settled into the New York scene in 1994.

“It was the tail end of the heyday of the ‘80s,” said the multi-instrumentalist Gina Leishman, who has led the group with reedist Doug Wieselman since its inception. The city still felt perilous then, she said, but the scene was close-knit. “The musical community was so supportive of each other. It’s as though the city itself was a common enemy, and everyone here came out to listen to everyone else.”

At the Kitchen, Kamikaze started with a piece called “Epilogue.” Assembled informally onstage, the band began before the audience knew it, the six horn players shushing tonelessly and almost introspectively through their instruments. Wieselman started to play the tune’s hymnlike melody on tenor saxophone, and as the others found their voices around him, they rose from their seats one by one.

The group moved into “S’Albufera,” a piece by Wieselman, with a simple, two-chord progression over a gentle rock beat. Slowly you were being submerged, becoming weightless; the horns were both the water and the swimmers, looping and accruing around each other. This was consonant, repetitious music, major and balladic in tone, but not form. You could see that Weiselman and Leishman had been onto something that would eventually resonate with jazz musicians like Donny McCaslin and Chris Potter, as well as first-generation indie-rock bands like Yo La Tengo and Wilco.

The Jazz Passengers followed, playing as a sextet. Running through material old and new, they held together some marriage of noir, midcentury blues, klezmer and hard-bop. The group’s music has a nervous humor that can only make total sense in New York; it feels most satisfying when the Passengers seem on the verge of falling apart — as they did during the up-tempo “Trouble,” or on the slower, drolly pessimistic “Wake Up, Again!” There Fowlkes sang of city troubles in a pensive baritone: “Can’t afford to live/Can’t afford to die.”

The Microscopic Septet, the oldest band on the bill, played the closing set. The group started in 1980, and the members have remained together for about half of the intervening years (there was a hiatus between 1992 and 2006). The original incarnation featured John Zorn and a number of other musicians whose affinities ran from punk to vaudeville.

The Micros — four saxophones and a piano-bass-drum rhythm section — began with “A Strange Thought Entered My Head,” written by the co-leader and soprano saxophonist Phillip Johnston. Mixing swing, boogie-woogie, polka and free jazz, it came from the band’s first album, “Take the Z Train,” recorded in 1983, when the group was two years into its longtime residency at the Ear Inn, one of Manhattan’s longest-running bars. Later in the set, they conjured a different brew on “Lobster in the Limelight,” tidy, marching-band locomotion giving way to clattering post-bop hits.

Watching the members of all three bands play one final tune together, you might have reflected on the idea that the 1980s were the first truly postmodern decade, when genres fell utterly apart (one critic called it “the end of art”). But what stuck with you about Saturday was less academic: something direct and pragmatic. For all its absurdism and performativity, were the ‘80s also our least existentialist decade — one of our most embodied? In a digital marketplace of crippling choice, there’s room for a lot more of that. The old downtown scene isn’t just a guide for today’s eclectic thinkers; it’s a foil again.