Released in tandem with Early American (an exploration of the music of Stephen Foster), Trio Tragico showcases clarinetist Andy Biskin working within the confines of an unconventional chamber-jazz trio. With characteristic wit, the composer delivers an album that is not nearly as melodramatic as the title implies.
Biskin enjoys a sublime foil in the rich and classically pure trumpet of Dave Ballou. Ubiquitous Downtown bassist Drew Gress is the fulcrum on which the two horn players pivot. With no drummer present, his lines support not only the pulse, but the principal melody and implied harmonies as well.
A mercurial writer and economical improviser, Biskin's sense of humor seeps into his music in subtle ways. While the trio occasionally flirts with melancholy, it never sounds morose. Embracing postmodern irony, but without the cool detached attitude, Biskin and company plot a lyrically poignant course that's unfettered by stylistic conventions.
"Boomerang" opens the album with a solemn refrain, recalling an Old World dirge by blending mournful clarinet, somber trumpet and plangent bowed bass. Suddenly, the tune comes alive; the bass bounds into a brisk walking pattern, launching a jubilant clarinet flight, followed by an equally ebullient trumpet solo. The horns weave a sonorous web, accompanying each other throughout, and Gress takes a brief statement before the collective finish.
The baroque-inspired composition "Over The Years" follows a similarly whimsical strategy. Biskin maintains straight-laced classicism, intermittently inserting searing Yiddish doina laments, then just as abruptly returning to the formal structure.
The trio generates more than just pleasant melodies; compare the rich harmonies of "Hey Day" to the folksy, see-saw jauntiness of "Walking Distance," with its fractured lullaby ambience. The infectious "Paging Mr. Yes," while outwardly reminiscent of an early two-step, employs shades of an impulsive, Ivesian nature. Biskin's pieces are enigmatic but always accessible, from the gorgeous balladry and Middle Eastern flourishes of "I Should Talk" to sprightly bop pieces such as "I Think Not" and "Plaything."
The trio blends subtle improvisation and nuanced group interaction so seamlessly into Biskin's compositions that the dividing line between the two vanishes. With creative arrangements and stellar interplay, Trio Tragico invokes a broad sonic palette, bringing these enchanting pieces to life. Whether exploring tangos, marches, Dixieland, bebop or any number of early American song forms, Biskin's trio handles it all with respect and good humor.
Personnel: Andy Biskin: clarinet, bass clarinet; Dave Ballou: trumpet; Drew Gress: bass.