Early American: The Melodies of Stephen Foster
With Andy Biskin (clarinet), Pete McCann (guitar and banjo), Chris Washburne (trombone and tuba), and John Hollenbeck (drums and percussion). REVIEWS Someone figured to dedicate an entire album to Stephen Foster sooner or later, and clarinetist Andy Biskin's Early American makes you wonder why it took so long. Biskin proves the innate dignity of songs like 'Old Black Joe' and 'Old Folks at Home' rests in their melodies. The only hint of stiff-legged parody is on the wonderful 'There's a Good Time Coming,' with it's delirious eruptions of polka, klezmer, and Mahavishnu-like distortion and fuzz. Everything on Early American, including an abstracted 'Beautiful Dreamer' and a handful of originals more or less in the Foster manner (the most robust a bumping blues called 'Thin King Thinking'), attests to Biskin's admiration for this vintage material, despite his cheeky approach to it. -Francis Davis, The Village Voice (10 Best CDs of 2006) Andy Biskin seeks to find the threads between old European folk music, early American songforms and the contemporary avant-garde. Biskin's Stephen Foster songbook grew from interpreting "Jeanie With The Light Brown Hair" cold on the bandstand. It sparked something in the way he'd been composing for his regular quartet, and the result was this mix of Foster interpretations and original compositions. Biskin's quartet twists them so that parts of "Camptown Races" sounds like Burt Bacharach," Hard Times Come Again No More" becomes a Civil War dirge march and "There's A Good Time Coming" morphs into a funky boogaloo with Pete McCann's guitar wailing overhead. His own six pieces also reach back into the 1800s and snap forward to the present. The title track treads the line between ragtime and klezmer, with Chris Washburne's trombone and John Hollenbeck's ricky-tick drumming propelling the tune forward like an old jitney." Kid Proof" clatters into Raymond Scott territory, and winds up with McCann creating chaos. That it's only a minor step from there to a music box rendition of Foster's "Old Folks At Home " makes Biskin's point that all this stuff -as diverse as it appears -is cut from the same cloth. -James Hale, Downbeat (Four-star review, 10 Best CDs of 2006) Foster's melodies have existed in our culture for so long that they're practically part of the American landscape. Biskin's arrangements honor their lineage while showing how durable they are, letting utterly familiar songs like "Oh! Susanna" and "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair" sound freshly minted. The new writing serves to show how clean, melodic lines can be embraced in unabashedly modern, though never dissonant, ways. -David Greenberger, Signal to Noise Magazine The musicians combine assertive musical forces with Foster's original themes. In the process, they turn the clock forward to collect many of the changes that have taken place since the 19th Century composer's lifetime. Dixieland, bebop, gospel, country and swing enter the picture, interspersed with collective improvisation that runs free and wild. Tuba, electric guitar, wiry percussion and a hot clarinet give the picture plenty of fire. In the process, they reach back and assist Foster in forming impressions of a Southern lifestyle that needed closer examination. I'm not so sure that Stephen Foster succeeded in that mission, but Andy Biskin and his quartet certainly do. They've given us plenty to think about. Biskin's six originals carry out the same kind of enthusiasm without Foster's memorable melodies. His music is energetic, creative, and at the leading edge of jazz's modern mainstream. Recommended for all ages, Biskin's music puts a smile on the face of modern jazz. -Jim Santella, All About Jazz Mixing mania and melancholy in a rather uncanny way, the clarinet player brings a new vibe to Stephen Foster's nuggets on the recent Early American. A gleeful modernist, his arrangements have no problem giving the material a hotfoot while still allowing their melodies and sentiment to radiate. -Jim, Macnie, The Village Voice Early American seems a logical continuation of the geographically loaded 'mashup' that typifies Biskin's musical approach. The disc exudes American whimsy; American music, in all it's stereotypically rhetorical glory, is certainly present, but the listener is also taken deep into the melting pot in some unlikely circumstances. 'Camptown Races' is a festering microhistory, augmenting what begins as a simple melodic statement with some decidedly R&B drums, brushstroked to perfection. A side-trip through planing impressionistic harmonies leads, ultimately, to a bit of Bossa Nova as Biskin alludes to 'When the Saints Go Marching In'; it's all done so simply, in such a straight-forward manner, that several listens are needed to catch the references as they go by. The Biskin originals here are perfect foils, feeding on the past while skirting it, delving into rock and blues with ease and dexterity, even a little Ivesian polytonality thrown in for good measure. Nothing on the disc is likely to cause excessive surprise or revolution, such is the comfort and gentleness with which Biskin pushes, or nudges, boundaries. -Marc Medwin, Cadence The goals of Mr. Biskin's project are impossible, but straightforward: to create modern jazz utilizing clarinet, tuba, banjo, and Foster's Civil War-era melodies. Mr. Biskin employs the instrumentation of a Dixieland band, and plays tunes that would have seemed old fashioned even to Dixielanders. But it's also remarkably modern: The group's use of guitar or banjo as a chordal instrument in place of the piano, juxtaposed against the leader's expressive, ashen-toned clarinet, gives the project a feel more akin to postmodernists such as Jimmy Giuffre or Tony Scott. (The use of Bill Frisell-like sound washes on Mr. Biskin's liberally rewritten 'Camptown Races' might lead one to guess that this was one of the Paul Motian-Joe Lovano groups playing Foster's music in a blindfold test.) Mr. Biskin has interwoven these freshly conceived two horn-two rhythm arrangements of Foster classics with his own originals, which seem like responses to Foster's melodies as well as interpretations of the mature American vernacular style that Foster's music ultimately led to. 'Fits and Starts,' for instance, is an odd-meter funk number that Raymond Scott could have written for a New Orleans brass band. Mr. Biskin may reinterpret Foster's tunes, but he never subverts them or alters their meanings, and in letting 'Oh! Susanna' be alternately wistful and jaunty, or in letting 'Beautiful Dreamer,' in which the melody is played by trombonist Chris Washburne, be haunting and lyrical, he shows us that Foster's mid-19th century hits still have much to say. -Will Friedwald, New York Sun Clarinetist Andy Biskin's 2000 debut, Dogmental, unequivocally announced a major jazz vision akin to Don Byron's; one that considers polka, Charles Ives, and Charles Mingus as equally inspiring voices. With this pair of releases, Biskin goes in two related directions at once. Early American embraces fully a long-tone look at Foster's tunes, genuflecting at points and finding all kinds of space to improvise and rattle the original melodies loose - especially on 'Camptown Races,' which has McCann shining on some bent-string extensions that are both honest to the piece and bluesy in a mellow, raggedy manner. This is a fabulous example of how a composer today can play the familiar and play with it, changing it to fit the energy. 'Nelly Bly' has a nervy edge to it, folksy with McCann's banjo but also rustled ever so creatively. Biskin spreads six of his own tracks through the album, and they are each overflowing with colors, all coming from a band built around a fairly unlikely source for post-bop playing. -Andrew Bartlett, Coda More than yet another tribute album, Early American is a colorful, vibrant, risk-taking musical adventure that brings Stephen Foster's oeuvre to life in a wholly unexpected way. -David Wayne, JazzReview.com.