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Saxophonist Roy Nathanson, co-founder of the Jazz Passengers, is frequently described as quirky--and he's earned the term the old-fashioned way. According to Nathanson's partner, trombonist Curtis Fowlkes, "You look up `quirky' in the dictionary, and Roy's picture is next to it."

As judged by the music they make together, Fowlkes and the rest of the Passengers (drummer/percussionist E.J. Rodriguez, vibist Bill Ware and bassist Brad Jones) deserve to appear on the same page. Nathanson and Fowlkes created the Passengers as a side project while they were members of John Lurie's eccentric creation the Lounge Lizards. "We started, Roy and I together, while working out some duet material," Fowlkes says in a lilting monotone, sounding like Barry White on helium. "We had a friend who built a studio, and we thought it might be a good chance for us to do something. So we got a little more broad-scoped and started to think a little more acoustically. Our instrumentation was the vibes, violin, trombone and saxophone. We had guitar back then, too, and it made for a nice textural blend--an unconventional front line in any sense. We kind of learned from ourselves where the sound of the band was going."

The act's original lineup, which also included guitarist Marc Ribot and violinist Jim Nolet (both of whom have since left the Passengers), quickly made a splash on New York's art-house scene, combining free improvisation and sharp, sophisticated comedy. Unfortunately, the humor they exhibited caused many jazz critics to ignore or dismiss the Passengers in spite of the talents of the players involved. Other musicians were not nearly so snooty; many of the best went out of their way to work with the performers. Ribot was recruited to play in bands with Elvis Costello. Ware was a featured player on last year's Steely Dan tour. Nathanson added his music to pieces by playwright Ray Dobbins and monologuist David Cale. And Fowlkes has recorded with Bill Frisell, Henry Threadgill's Very Very Circus and Charlie Haden's Liberation Orchestra.

Early albums by the Passengers aren't easy to find. The first two, released in 1987 and 1988, appeared on Belgium's Crepescule label, while the third, financed by a grant from the Lila Wallace/Reader's Digest Fund, was issued by the obscure New World Records imprint. Two other offerings were put out by the company associated with New York's Knitting Factory--but it wasn't until this year's Jazz Passengers in Love, on High Street, that the group enjoyed wide distribution. As a result, the disc is winning the Passengers the respect they've long deserved.

Love, produced by the high priest of unusual interpretation, Hal Willner, is a bold and twisted project even by the Passengers' standards. The tunes, marked by polytonal experimentation, feature lyrics provided by ten guest vocalists, including Mavis Staples, Jenni (daughter of Geoff and Maria) Muldaur, Jeff (son of Tim) Buckley, Bob Dorough, Freedy Johnston, Jimmy Scott and John Kelly, a charming drag queen/performance artist who sounds like Joni Mitchell. But the singer whose efforts earned the most notice was former Blondie figurehead Debbie Harry. Although she contributed only one track to Love, she's touring with the Passengers and may well assist the combo again on its next platter.

The pairing with Harry has raised a few eyebrows in the jazz community, Fowlkes acknowledges, but these reactions haven't prevented the Passengers from adding two Blondie songs ("One Way or Another" and "The Tide Is High") to its set list. "Debbie's really sounding good and finding her way in this jazz setting," Fowlkes goes on. "She said it was like school, doing jazz festivals and things she's not normally around. She turned fifty on the tour, at the beginning of July, but she still sounds like a young girl in terms of voice quality."

Of course, Harry's presence has also had an extramusical impact on the Passengers. "Everyone wants to totally engulf her in publicity and interviews and stuff," Fowlkes concedes. "And there's all these sly little remarks being put out. But those don't have a lot of bearing on us, because we're not exactly what you'd call a classic-jazz group. We're not going to sit there and play a bunch of standards and let her sing. We're going to do our own twists with it.

"She's not going to be compared to whoever is doing a jazz turn now--you know, `pop singer turned jazz,'" he continues. "She's working in our interpretations now, and we try to make things a little jagged. And even though her voice doesn't have a lot of vibrato and things like that, it's coming across pretty well. I think even the cynics are going to be taken. So far, it's been that way."

ListenUptown Concerts at the Plex, with the Jazz Passengers and Debbie Harry. 8 p.m. Friday, August 11, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 14th & Curtis, $16, 777-7372.

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Linda Gruno