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Thursday, March 14, 2024

John Lurie - Painting with John (Strange and Beautiful, 2024)

By Martin Schray

The fact that you can listen to a new album by John Lurie (at least in parts) while he’s still alive is spectacular news in itself. For many, he has fallen into oblivion and is more a case for “What happened to …?“ columns. Yet, he was a real star in the 1980s, a hipster par excellence. Almost everyone wanted to be like him. Others however, couldn’t stand him. Both sides had something going for them. Lurie had the coolest jazz band of the time (The Lounge Lizards), he was a friend of Tom Waits, he played the leading roles in Jim Jarmusch’s films (e.g. Stranger Than Paradise and Down By Law), he wore oversized, ultra-sharp suits. On top of it all, he was casual, spindly, more than six feet tall and seemed to be up to his eyeballs with indifference. His instrument was the alto saxophone. The fact that he was not a virtuoso like Charlie Parker didn’t matter, because he invented Fake Jazz, and that led to No Jazz and the scene around the CBGBs in New York in the late 1970s and early 80s. He was simply in the right place at the right time and he had goddamn charisma. Lurie performed successfully with the Lounge Lizards in various line-ups until the end of the nineties and he wrote the soundtracks for films such as Get Shorty and Lulu On the Bridge. He founded his own label, Strange and Beautiful, and developed the completely bonkers TV series Fishing with John.

Then however, his luck took a big blow. He was struck with severe Lyme disease in 1994, which heavily affected him, including the loss of his ability to play the saxophone. Lyme disease also led to his decision to isolate and distance himself socially. But Lurie - the multi-talent that he has always been - had to keep producing art. He started painting pictures in vibrant earth tones and with unconventional fauna. Painting became a source of joy for him and a way to overcome the challenges he faced, since - as if Lyme disease wasn’t enough - he also got cancer. Eventually, in December of 2022, he announced on social media channels that he would be producing a new show for HBO called Painting With John. He described it as a way to cheer people up during these difficult times. In the show, Lurie paints in his secret hideout in the Caribbean. He tells stories from his life, including his experiences as a jazz saxophonist, film and television composer and actor. As in Fishing with John, he combines the idea of painting with non-art: Painting with John is probably the most adventurous art academy ever broadcast.

What is more, everything seems to have come full circle, as Lurie has returned to music. Painting With John, the album, is the soundtrack to his HBO show. The 56 tracks are fragments both from former releases, e.g. from his soundtracks to Manny and Lo and African Swim with the John Lurie National Orchestra, and Marvin Pontiac, the re-animated discography of the fictional bluesman he created, as well as from old Lounge Lizards material (Queen of All Ears). But what is most interesting is the new material. Lurie has composed all the new tracks, he is on vocals and plays banjo, guitar and harmonica. His band is excellent as always: It consists of Doug Wieselman (guitar, clarinet, ocarina, baritone saxophone, bass clarinet), Steven Bernstein (trumpet, slide trumpet), Michael Blake (tenor and soprano saxophone), Art Baron, Curtis Fowlkes and Clark Gayton (trombones), Evan Lurie (piano), Smokey Hormel (guitar), Bryan Carrott (marimba, vibes), Jane Scarpantoni (cello), Tony Scherr (electric and acoustic bass, slide guitar), Calvin Weston (drums), and Kenny Wollesen (percussion, marimba, vibes).

And the result is much more than just a pleasant surprise. It’s particularly heartwarming to hear the great man sing and speak again, for example on “Ali Hum“ and “Night Hunters“, African desert blues tracks that could be found on a Tamikrest album as well. On “Humba“ and “Boomba!“ Lurie simply mumbles one word to himself, which is both funny and meditative. “New Opening“, “John and Calvin Wah Wah“ and “Baby Pigs“ are very delta-bluesy and remind me of a modern John Lee Hooker. Yet, the highlights of the album are certainly tracks that are in the Lounge Lizards tradition. On “Disappearing Alligator“,“The Snake That Protects Teeth“,“GB 14“, Sea Monster“ and “Helium Balloon“ the interplay of brief harmonic shifts, small motivic strands and minimalist groove develops a hypnotizing tapestry of sound.

I have to admit that I’ve been very moved listening to this music (which I’ve done over and over again in the last few weeks). Especially the Lounge Lizards reminiscences transport you back to the early 1990s, it seems like time has stood still. Painting with John comforts me when I’m feeling down. When I’m in a good mood, I feel even better. “This may be the last thing I do“, Lurie says. “I want it to be beautiful.“ I hope it’s not the last thing you hear from John Lurie. But it’s definitely beautiful.

Painting with John is available on double vinyl and as a download. You can order it here

Check out the band jamming here:


Ferruccio said...

Legend, the real mayor of avenue B. Tears in my eyes reading of his comeback

Anonymous said...

The Lounge Lizards were my gateway drug to all the avant musics. I remember vividly seeing the video for Big Heart on VH1's weird music show with Ben Sidran, back in the '80s. Lurie"s auto biography is worth reading, too.

Don Phipps said...

Interesting and awesome music. Thanks for sharing....