The saxman cometh

He's a paragon of Gotham City cool, an indie film actor par excellence (only Parker Posey boasts as impressive a filmography) and a thrill-seeking television fishing show host (his comedy show "Fishing With John," will air on the Independent Film Channel next month). His show finds him casting his line in exotic locales -- Thailand, Jamaica, northernmost Maine -- with fellow hipster travelers and pals Matt Dillon, Tom Waits, Dennis Hopper, Willem Dafoe and Jim Jarmusch.

What gives?! Why isn't John Lurie a Saturday-morning, household name among the camo-gear, meat-and-beer set, just like bass fishing godfather Babe Winkleman?

Further, why doesn't he grace the pages of People, noshing on the Mediterranean with Posey and company?

Well, Lurie is, first and foremost, a musician: a boho-punk jazz saxman , bandleader (including the three-piece John Lurie National Orchestra) and acclaimed film score composer. His new release, The Queen of All Ears, with his nearly 20-year-old, nine-piece ensemble, the Lounge Lizards -- an ever-more-inappropriate, originally ironic moniker -- could be a score for a movie that's never to be made. Wild-eyed, far-reaching and almost religious in fervor, it never loses the downtown cool that Lurie so epitomizes. The record is an evocative blowout of jazz skronking, aural surprises and butt-moving, manic action. Yet, it's also utterly accessible, something Lurie leaves to the ear of the beholder.

"On the film score stuff, I do actually try to make it accessible. With the Lizards' stuff, I follow whatever 'it,' this thing, is. I really can't tell whether it's accessible or not," says Lurie. "I find that it is. But some people think it's too way out or whatever. I know live it works."

While Lurie's sax work makes reference to luminaries from Eric Dolphy to John Zorn, his compositional chops, backed by the power of the eight other Lounge Lizards, take his work to unique heights. And, though the Lizards' surface is all acute musical angles and squared circles, the rhythm and drive keep one foot in '60s R&B. This is particularly evident live, says Lurie, where "there's a lot more energy. We tried to pull it back for the record. It's nine people playing, and you can't possibly capture that on record, the power."

That melding of the soulful and the cerebral is a dynamic Lurie's acutely aware of, too.

Part of making Queen of All Ears was what Lurie calls "the goose-bump test": "We played a bad take of an intro from one song where, when the band came in, it was really good, and Evan, my brother, got goose bumps when he heard it. Then we played the other, 'better,' one and he didn't get goose bumps."

How -- or, after 20 years, why -- does Lurie keep the Lizards going?

"Tenacity," he says. "It's always something that keeps it going. It could've ended so many times."

"It was kind of like a punk jazz thing at the beginning then there was really a stinky period, but then around '84-'85 it got better again. The development and progression has been a long, slow, gradual thing. You try to get away from it. It loses money. It's hell to do and to take on the road -- and then you play and everybody says, 'We gotta keep doing this!'"

The moral: However far a musician may roam, he ultimately, and infallibly, comes back to the music. Chris Handyside is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]

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