Stephen Foster was America's first pop songwriter, his music widely sung and played, as well as reproduced on music boxes (this album begins and ends with examples) in the last half of the 19th Century. But Foster is not the only uniquely American musician clarinetist Andy Biskin takes inspiration from in this idiosyncratic album.
The spirit of Raymond Scott, whose music was created roughly a century after Foster's, also informs this project. Scott's antic stylebest known from his soundtrack work for animated cartoon shortsis reflected in both Biskin's approach to instrumentation and jumpy, jangly time shifting.
Biskin's unique instrumentation takes cues from Jimmy Giuffre's early small groups, which also employed trombone and/or guitar. But here trombonist Chris Washburne doubles on tuba, guitarist Pete McCann adds some banjo and there's a drummer, John Hollenbeck, who adds such period touches as paradiddles and martial tattoos. And Biskin varies the sonic lineup even more with frequent drop-outs to spotlight duos or trios, and a cappella breaks. Melodies are also shared among clarinet, muted and open trombone, tuba and a guitar employing a wide spectrum of tones and electric/acoustic strategies.
The fifteen quartet tracks intersperse six Biskin originals among nine Biskin-arranged Foster tunes. His originals, like the whimsical "Journey Cake quoting "When the Saints Go Marching In, and the self-descriptive "Fits and Starts, reinforce the Raymond Scott connection. His approach to Foster varies from fairly straight melodic ("Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair ) to a "Beautiful Dreamer relying on the listener's familiarity with the melody to assemble the cubist splotches and serial shards delivered by the horns and guitar. But most Foster tunes are delivered in alternating slow and fast sections, the slow ones honing close to Foster's melodies, the quick ones providing counter-melodies, riffs or space for improvisation.
Personnel: Andy Biskin: clarinet; Pete McCann: guitar, banjo; Chris Washburne: trombone, tuba; John Hollenbeck: drums, percussion.