A working jazz musician in New York City and environs since 1991, clarinetist, composer, and filmmaker Andy Biskin
is a modern-day Renaissance Man. The Texas native was already a fixture in San Antonio's polka scene (yes, people, this is a thing) as a teenager, Biskin attended Yale where he double-majored in music and anthropology. Later, he joined the staff of the legendary folklorist Alan Lomax
. While working as an independent videographer and video producer / director, fate intervened and a chance meeting with Gunther Schuller
in an elevator resulted in Schuller producing Biskin's debut album, Dogmental
(GM Recordings, 2001). Since then, Biskin's recorded four more albums of remarkably complex, yet completely whimsical musiceach with a completely different ensemble. His tribute to Stephen Foster, Early American
(Strudel Media, 2001) is an especially remarkable document that transformed Foster's melodies in new and completely unexpected ways; maintaining their integrity while presenting listeners with music that remains utterly contemporary.
In 2013, Biskin brought all of the disparate threads of his multi-faceted career together in a multi-media extravaganza entitled "Goldberg's Variations." Neither tribute to J. S. Bach, nor to Glenn Gould
, "Goldberg's Variations" consists of Biskin's animations of cartoons and drawings by Rube Goldberg, set to his own original music. Yet, Act Necessary
, the latest album by Biskin's newest ensemble, Ibid, is an entirely separate project, though it draws inspiration from many of the same musical sources: Thelonious Monk
, Raymond Scott
, pre-bop jazz, Tin Pan Alley, and silent film soundtracks.
One of the finest clarinetists working in any musical field these days, Biskin has recruited a group of similarly accomplished young, risk-taking musicians to populate Ibid. Drummer Jeff Davis
and cornetist Kirk Knuffke
, ubiquitous stalwarts of the bustling, avant-leaning Brooklyn jazz scene, have worked together in each others' groups as well as with Josh Roseman
, Tony Malaby
, Matt Wilson
, Jon Irabagon
, and Ideal Bread. Trombonist Brian Drye
, similarly situated in Brooklyn, is the founder of Ibeam Brooklyn and is on the staff at Carnegie Hall as a teaching artist. As members of Ibid, each has numerous opportunities to shine in Biskin's crazy quilt compositions. They do not disappoint.
What leaps to attention right off the bat is Ibid's lack of a bassist. As the horns come in on the opening melody of the title track, there's suddenly something startling and naked about Davis' unaccompanied funky drummer backbeat. Biskinwho has a penchant for ensembles that utilize either
bass or drums, but not bothis also a brilliant arranger who seems to understand that there's no need to compensate for the absence of a low end in his music. Rather than obsessing over it and making other instruments occupy the bassist's role, Biskin simply circumvents it. Sure, Davis often feathers his bass drum like Papa Jo Jones, and Drye occasionally provides a counter melody from the depths of his trombone, but the band really doesn't see bass lines as a necessity. Harmonies occur between the horns and shift nimbly as Biskin's knotty-but-whimsical compositions progress. While the near-constant presence of a wryly humorous or ironic elements to Biskin's tunes are reminiscent of some of Raymond Scott's, Carla Bley
's and Willem Breuker
's more recent works, Ibid's music has a tough, strutting jazziness to it that is most reminiscent of Monk. In almost every piece, there's a clutch of Monk-like odd accents, sweet-and-sour harmonies, and notes that are held for just a little longer than you'd expect. Yes, your foot is tapping along and then that moment comes along where it hovers above the floor for a split second while your brain figures out exactly what is going on.
The most Monk-like piece here is "Whirligig," where Davis' brief glockenspiel invocation sounds like Monk's famous celeste opening to "Pannonica" (Brilliant Corners
, Rivrside Records, 1957). Biskin's naughty, bar-line violating melody is made to fit by using oddly positioned rests, and the whole thing is crowned by a series of utterly fascinating improvised duets with Davis' extraordinarily nimble drums. "Just Like Me" is somewhat similar, with a forward-leaning jazz momentum and fugue-like structure. The percolating polyrhythms of New Orleans crop up on a few pieces. In its opening seconds, "The Titans" moves from a horn chorale to a cheery second-line underpinning a jaunty, vaguely Tex-Mex melody. Similarly, the title track relates 4/4 funk to the bobbing syncopations of The Big Easy, giving the soloists a variety of rhythmic motifs to work with. "Pretext" puts a second-line spin on a blues shuffle, but the straightforward melody frames a series of improbable out-of-tempo melodic snippets that Davis negotiates with relaxed ease. Two-beat polka forms the basis of "Balderdash," but the piece has a manic circus-y / cartoon-like feel. "Page 17" has similar two-beat feel, albeit a bit less manic and with contrasting sections that speed up and gather momentum.
Biskin may not be prolific, but every single one of his albums has been a true musical adventure. Like Rube Goldberg's fantastic and creations, Andy Biskin's music seems improbable and ungainly but ultimately tickles and teases the brain by actually being deeply elegant and well thought-out; not to mention amazingly well-executed.