Roy Nathanson is most often identified as a jazz saxophonist, but he is also an actor, a teacher and a poet. When he plays on stage, he is frequently trying to combine all of those things into an avant garde art form that is distinctive and new.
The words in his “words and music” aren’t lyrics — they are intended to complement the melodies, but in an unconventional way.
“There are all different ways of improvising,” Nathanson said. “Words have sounds, and the notes themselves have meaning. Try thinking of notes as letters or words themselves, but it’s not quite as intellectual as that. It’s a matter of telling a story combining those two things and making a performance out of it.”
Nathanson, along with trombonist Curtis Fowlkes and bassist Jerome Harris, will perform at Temple Sinai in Newport News on Sunday afternoon in a program titled Board the Love Train: Free Jazz from the Big Apple. Local jazz artists Jae Sinnett will moderate the show, which is free.
Nathanson and Fowlkes have collaborated for three decades after starting Jazz Passengers, a band whose primary vocalist was Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Debbie Harry. Elvis Costello, who has also performed with them, describes Nathanson as “one of the great unsung poets, teachers and composers working in the United States.”
Neal Sokol, producing the show on behalf of his wife, Rabbi Severine Sokol, describes it as “Severine’s gift to our beautiful city, birthplace of the iconic Ella Fitzgerald.” Sokol was intrigued by the ways he saw Nathanson’s Jewish faith influencing his music.
“I don’t necessarily address it directly, but I try to make sense of the injustices I see in our country,” Nathanson said. “Faith allows you to think about the deeper aspects of that. How can we find something together through our own individual histories?
“The sound of the notes and the words we choose can access that somehow and get us closer to some kind of holy idea. When we see what injustice does to us, these kinds of cruelties minimize us. I try to do this with a sense of humor — it’s disarming. It opens us.”
Nathanson, a native of Brooklyn, said both of his parents were talented musicians, and he grew up playing classical clarinet. He didn’t stick with it, but when he heard John Coltrane he knew he wanted to play jazz sax.
“I thought that was the thing to do,” he said. “It reinvented music for me. When I was 18 or 19 I swore I would never play another written note. I wanted to play sounds.”
In addition to Coltrane, his influences include musician Roland Kirk, authors Italo Calvino and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, poet Adélia Prado and surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel.
“I’m a political person, at least about the ideas of community and power,” he said. “Music is something people walk, and it’s the way normal people can tell stories. It’s how we talk about deeper issues. I hope to find some kind of heart in the way people tell stuff.”