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

Jeff Dayton-Johnson By

Sign in to view read count
Andy Biskin Quartet: Early American: The Melodies of Stephen Foster In the October 2006 issue of Jazzman magazine, Vincent Bessières documents the explosion of jazz renditions of compositions by Björk, pointing to versions by artists like Geoff Keezer, Marcin Wasilewski, Greg Osby, Eric Legnini, Jason Moran, Larry Goldings and Dave Douglas. (If he'd waited another month or so, he could have included a lovely reading of "New World" on Florian Weber's new trio record Minsarah, Enja/Justin Time, 2006.)

Jazz musicians' salutary interest in Björk's songs reflects a strategy to broaden the songbook away from the American popular-song staples of the 1920-50 period that have long served as the raw material for the improviser's art. Love these songs all you will, they have been exhibiting what economists call diminishing marginal returns for years: the old chestnuts yield fewer novelties with each new reading.

Clarinettist Andy Biskin's solution to this problem is altogether different than that chosen by the Björk fans: on Early American: The Melodies of Stephen Foster, rather than turning to contemporary songs, he goes back, way back, to the 19th Century songwriter of the record's subtitle, whose tunes are extraordinarily well-known to Americans. Biskin's strategy appears to have struck a chord. For example, there are, at the time of this writing, four reviews of the record at AllAboutJazz.com. But do Foster's songs provide the necessary inspiration to render fresh jazz?

Frankly, I don't see it. To be fair, the experiment has its moments. Biskin, in the liner notes, praises Foster's "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair," and indeed, this wistful, gentle performance may be the most affecting one on the record. In a few other places, the quartet manages to go the center of the very old material and make something new, especially on "Hard Times Come Again No More," driven by an understated martial snare drum, and the improbably rocking "Nelly Bly," with Pete McCann's bravura banjo fills.

But more often than not the performances gather steam in spite, rather than because, of the material. A typical approach ("Old Folks at Home," "Old Black Joe") is to alternate a consummately-arranged statement of the Foster melody with a self-consciously "modern" modal vamp over which most of the (admittedly very good) soloing occurs. The Foster themes rarely escape a cartoonish tinge, one which was already evident when Dave Brubeck attempted a cover of "Camptown Races" half a century ago. The modal interludes, engaging as they may be (witness the tuba-led funk of "There's a Good Time Coming") draw little from the compositions themselves. As such the performances lack the organic coherence of the Biskin originals (like the fine "Thin King Thinking").

The failures of this record are related to conception, not execution, which is sufficient to sustain interest throughout. The perversely polyvalent McCann, in particular, delivers on the promise shown on his recent outing Most Folks (OmniTone, 2006).

Now if Biskin were to do an album of Björk songs...

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.

Year Released: 2006 | Record Label: Strudelmedia | Style: Modern Jazz


More Articles

Read The Sound of Surprise: Live at the Side Door CD/LP/Track Review The Sound of Surprise: Live at the Side Door
by Edward Blanco
Published: February 25, 2017
Read The Angel and the Brute Sing Songs of Rapture CD/LP/Track Review The Angel and the Brute Sing Songs of Rapture
by Karl Ackermann
Published: February 25, 2017
Read Coldest Second Yesterday CD/LP/Track Review Coldest Second Yesterday
by John Sharpe
Published: February 25, 2017
Read Chicago II CD/LP/Track Review Chicago II
by Doug Collette
Published: February 25, 2017
Read Follow Your Heart CD/LP/Track Review Follow Your Heart
by Mark Corroto
Published: February 25, 2017
Read Over the Rainbow CD/LP/Track Review Over the Rainbow
by Paul Rauch
Published: February 24, 2017
Read "Imagine That" CD/LP/Track Review Imagine That
by Dan Bilawsky
Published: March 30, 2016
Read "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground" CD/LP/Track Review Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground
by James Nadal
Published: April 8, 2016
Read "Allison Philips Trio" CD/LP/Track Review Allison Philips Trio
by Karl Ackermann
Published: November 27, 2016
Read "Jambú" CD/LP/Track Review Jambú
by Joe Gatto
Published: February 13, 2017
Read "Saga Thirteen" CD/LP/Track Review Saga Thirteen
by Dan Bilawsky
Published: March 29, 2016
Read "OUTgoing" CD/LP/Track Review OUTgoing
by Budd Kopman
Published: January 31, 2017

Post a comment

comments powered by Disqus

Sponsor: ECM Records | BUY NOW  

Support our sponsor

Support All About Jazz's Future

We need your help and we have a deal. Contribute $20 and we'll hide the six Google ads that appear on every page for a full year!

Buy it!