At the end of the millennium, a little nostalgia is inevitable. But nostalgia for something that never existed? That’s the story behind The Fire at Keaton’s Bar & Grill, the latest project by songwriter/sax player Roy Nathanson. An ambitious brew of jazz, pop, and literature, Nathanson’s album tells, in its rather elliptical way, the story of a bar and the people who inhabit it. It’s the story of a fairly typical bar – except that the bartender is Blondie’s Deborah Harry, the storyteller is Elvis Costello, and the fire that may or may not have destroyed the bar may or may not have been set by Richard Butler of the Psychedelic Furs.
Co-founder of The Jazz Passengers, New York’s premiere avant-jazz band, Roy Nathanson has created a piece of music theater in collaboration with lyricists Ray Dobbins and David Cale. “I wanted to construct a basic idea to wrap the compositions around,” Nathanson explains. “And I’ve always been struck by the fact that the bar is the only place in modern society where a certain kind of intimacy happens in public.” Nathanson also points to Invisible Cities, the experimental novel by the great Italian writer Italo Calvino, as a major source of inspiration. In Calvino’s book, Marco Polo regales Kublai Khan with tales of impossible cities, though whether they are all wildly different views of a single city or genuinely different places is never made clear. So what if Calvino had written an episode of Cheers instead? Maybe something like The Fire at Keaton’s Bar & Grill would have resulted.
Aided and abetted by a wide range of musicians, Nathanson has created a mercurial suite of works that runs from dreamy, intimate ballads to tango to brash, street-smart jazz/funk. And despite a colorful cast of characters, the jukebox is, according to Nathanson, the heart of the bar. The music features old friends from The Jazz Passengers as well as new collaborators like the great jazz pianist Cyrus Chestnut and his old friend, the legendary organist Charles Earland. It sets the stage and moves the story along in a way that goes beyond merely supporting the words.