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

Jeff Dayton-Johnson By

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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.

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

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