On Early American, clarinetist Andy Biskin sets off for a good-natured romp through the Stephen Foster songbook. Tackling such distinctive material, associated with the countrified jazz crossover typically favored by iconic guitarist Bill Frisell, risks unfair comparison. But while Frisell has a quirky bent to his voicings and arrangements, Biskin is far more mischievous. He never transforms these chestnuts into clownish throwaways, yet his interpretations are anything but slavishly traditional.
The bulk of the program consists of classic Stephen Foster folk tunes arranged by Biskin; the remaining third are originals inspired by Foster's heartland melodies. The album charts an adventurous course through the pastoral countryside of America while flirting with more urbane tonalities. Biskin isn't afraid to meld country twang and heavy metal distortion with folksy remembrances; his view of these watershed compositions is one of respect, but also curiosity.
Biskin is a measured and lyrical improviser. Melody holds sway over typical free-play or excessive abstraction in his playing. His clarinet swoops and soars through these buoyant pieces, while keeping the innate melodic structure of the tune close to his vest. His madcap run through "Kid Proof" proves irrepressible. He even conjures a brief klezmer passage in the midst of "There's A Good Time Coming."
Guitarist Pete McCann is a perfect foil for Biskin. While steeped in the same Americana as Bill Frisell, McCann sounds nothing like him, preferring a more traditional, hollowbody tone and sense of linear phrasing, even on the rambunctious twang of "Fits and Starts." When cranking up the distortion, he still sounds utterly singular. "Early American" and "Old Black Joe" find him shredding the frets with fuzzed-out abandon. He even breaks out the banjo occasionally, and his zany flourishes on "Nelly Bly" are stirring.
Inventive drummer John Hollenbeck's throttling tribal assault on "Early American" helps spur on McCann's searing guitar, while his postmodern hillbilly polyrhythms on "Oh! Susanna" and "Fits and Starts" are enthralling. Trombonist/tuba player Chris Washburne's role is typically more support than soloist, but he gets a gorgeous statement on "Beautiful Dreamer" and reinforces the ebullient melody of "Journey Cake."
On this delightful album, Biskin brings to the fore bygone melodies, reimagining them as challenging, spry frameworks for improvisation.
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Personnel: Andy Biskin: clarinet; Pete McCann: guitar, banjo; Chris Washburne: trombone, tuba; John
Hollenbeck: drums, percussion.