In the penultimate episode of his widely popular and critically acclaimed HBO series, Painting with John, its creator, John Lurie, sIts in a Manhattan recording studio, working out musical parts for the show’s soundtrack. “After the illness started, I didn’t think I’d ever be able to do this again,” said Lurie.
Even as he occupies an enigmatic, multi-faceted, five-decade career characterized by the unexpected, perhaps even Lurie is surprised by this new release of a double-album collection of music, Painting with John, extracted from the series.
Go back a quarter-century or so: As an exotic saxophonist and composer whose pieces alternately recalled cracked-mirror reflections of Thelonious Monk, or Fela Kuti, or Raymond Chandler, Lurie led the vastly influential, downtown NYC jazz ensemble, The Lounge Lizards, through dazzling albums and tours across the globe. He scored indie films and Hollywood hits, collecting a Grammy nomination for Get Shorty along the way and releasing his own surreality-TV series, Fishing with John.
Then, Lurie contracted an especially potent strain of Lyme disease that turned sound and light into elemental enemies. He put down his saxophone, stepped away from the camera, and retreated, in self-protection. He lived in isolation and painted. And then he got cancer.
The sum total of Lurie’s brilliant and evolving third act—including a return to music and acting, his fascinating memoir, History Of Bones, and a resurgent career as an arrestingly original watercolor painter living on a Caribbean island—makes it all the more unlikely. As well, it makes this double LP an astounding and comprehensive compilation epitomizing Lurie’s uniquely eclectic and provocative artistry; an immersive, captivating experience at its most affecting when listened to as a complete thought, from start to finish.
The 56-track set borrows from Lurie’s library of pre-existing creations ranging from indie soundtracks, Manny and Lo and African Swim, and the exhumed discography of Lurie’s fictive bluesman, Marvin Pontiac, and even back to The Lounge Lizards, as well as new pieces written and performed to align with the show’s panorama of narratives. The work rises from the seeds of the blues, exults in polyrhythmic exhales of African music, rides absurdist, elliptical chants, and drapes vignettes in greasy, funky noir.
Whether in short bursts of inspiration (“Unky G,” “Dervish Banjo,” “Ride Like The Wind, You Idiots”) or extended, looping conceits (“African Swim,” “Sea Monster,” “The First and Royal Queen”) Lurie’s arrangements wrap, hydra-like, around contrapuntal lines of his exotically primitive banjo and groove-soaked guitar, or embed themselves into elegant orchestrations, ignited by co-conspirators from the Lizard days, as well as players new to Lurie’s world. In every instance, the gathered ensembles, which include such luminaries as Steven Bernstein (trumpet), G. Calvin Weston (drums), Jane Scarpantoni (cello), Clark Gayton (trombone), Curtis Fowlkes (trombone), Doug Wieselman (guitar) and Michael Blake (tenor saxophone), unearth the music as much as perform it; hatching and solving the mystery in simultaneous solidarity.
It’s a journey; a travelogue of genre, style, and invention as fluid and evocative as the artist. Pure of intent, and engaging at every turn, Painting with John is both companion and stand-alone; both detailed soundtrack and joyous summary. “This may be the last thing I do,” Lurie says. “I want it to be beautiful.”