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The Andy Biskin Quartet: Early American: The Melodies of Stephen Foster

Dan McClenaghan By

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The songs of Stephen Foster (1826-64) seem to have seeped into our American DNA, especially for those of us of a certain age. We sang "Oh! Susanna," "Old Folks," "Camptown Races" and other Foster gems in elementary school—badly, if memory serves me, with an unrestrained, window-rattling youthful gusto on "Oh! Susanna." Those melodies are part of us now.

New York-based clarinetist Andy Biskin discovered the simple beauty and straightforward storytelling aspects of Foster's melodies after a chance playing of "I Dream of Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair" on a restaurant gig. He has since developed a deep interest in Foster's material that he brings to the fore on Early American.

Biskin and his cohorts—Pete McCann (guitar and banjo), Chris Washburne (trombone, tuba) and John Hollenbeck (drums)—craft a sometimes light-hearted and often whimsical sound, infused with warmth and an old-timey feeling, as they play some of Foster's best-known songs. You could call it Americana folk music chamber jazz, with a forward-leaning focus when Biskin's arrangements give the familiar melodies some idiosyncratic twists and turns, updating these timeless sounds with the likes of McCann's searing electric guitar solo on "There's a Good Time Coming."

Biskin slips in six of his own compositions to complement Foster's songs. On his "Thin King Thinking" the clarinet sings the blues in front of a thick tuba growl, before the band slides into an loose-limbed disassemble, like a drunken house band in a mid-19th Century house of ill repute; and on "Kid Proof" the group romps, taking turns, sharing the moments of sound—a tuba huff, then a drum clitter-clat and a clarinet trill, the guitar issuing spikey notes all around them.

The opening and closing tracks are brief moments (less than a minute each) from just after Foster's time, the tinkle of a wind-up music box from the late-1800s playing "My Old Kentucy Home, Good Night!" and "Old Folks at Home." In between you hear Andy Biskin's updated yet still reverent take on the sounds of Stephen Foster.

Track Listing: My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night!; Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair; Early American; Camptown Races; Journey Cake; Oh! Susanna; Fits and Starts; Hard Times Come Again No More; Nelly Bly; Thin King Thinking; Old Folks At Home; Old Black Joe; Dom Casual; There's a Good Time Coming; Beautiful Dreamer; Kid Proof; Old Folks At Home.

Personnel: Andy Biskin: clarinet; Pete McCann: guitar, banjo; Chris Washburne: trombone, tuba; John Hollenbeck: drums, percussion.

Title: Early American: The Melodies of Stephen Foster | Year Released: 2006 | Record Label: Strudelmedia

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