Howard Fishman has the creative intuition of a songwriter and the intellectual disposition of a musicologist. The Connecticut native spent several years in New Orleans, taking in the city’s kaleidoscopic musical heritage and developing what would become his signature style. Upon relocating to New York in 1997, he set about forming the Howard Fishman Quartet. The name may suggest a jazz group, and its players are indeed well versed in the rhythms and harmonies of jazz, from swing to bebop and beyond. But Fishman’s hyper-quirky, genre-confounding songs are equally informed by obscure folk, country, blues, Texas swing, Hot Club swing, standards, and what is known simply as "old-time music." In his hillbilly cap, playing a small, beat-up Gibson acoustic and singing in a plain, disarmingly sincere style, Fishman cultivates what might be called an anti-image. During the first couple of numbers, he and his players are illuminated by a single exposed bulb dangling from a wire.
Fishman’s main thrust is songs, but improvisation is an integral part of his group’s sound. He’ll often sing a verse or two and then yield the floor to violinist Russell Farhang, trumpeter Erik Jekabson, and bassist Jonathan Flaugher (there’s no drummer) for a jazz-style rotation of solos. Farhang blends classical, jazz, and country fiddle influences. Jekabson combines the brass theatrics of dixieland with a post-bop sensibility that recalls Kenny Dorham. Flaugher anchors the bottom while Fishman chugs away with his involved rhythm guitar parts. "Retro" doesn’t quite capture it: A lot of Fishman’s stuff is downright antique, in the best sense of the word. Melancholy country ballads, blues stomps, gypsy waltzes, and old chestnuts like "When I Grow Too Old to Dream": All of this rolls off Fishman’s tongue, and through the group’s veins, and it never sounds forced or phony. Fishman’s lyrical delivery can be sardonic, or crazed, or sad to the point of numbness, and the band always tailors its playing to the song’s narrative direction.
There’s an even more interesting side to the Howard Fishman Quartet, however. Switching to banjo, Fishman introduces the group’s rendition of an old "murder ballad," a near-maniacal tale about "pretty Polly" that ends with the poor girl’s death. Based on a one-note drone, its lyrical structure strongly tinged with the blues, the song is an example of the aforementioned "old-time music," passed down through the oral traditions of American mountain folk. In the hands of Fishman and crew it becomes an extended improvisation, often venturing into territory best described as free jazz. Flaugher wigs out in the manner of Richard Davis, Fishman bangs on the banjo like a drum, and Jekabson and Farhang react accordingly. "Old-time" music? Perhaps, but this is also new improvised music. Fishman reaches deep into the history of American song, puts what he finds in a contemporary blender, and comes up with something entirely his own.
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