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MP3 Andy Biskin - Early American: The Melodies of Stephen Foster

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MP3 Andy Biskin - Early
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Idiosyncratic arrangements of classic and lesser-known Stephen Foster melodies, interlaced with six Biskin originals that explore the roots of the American songbook.

17 MP3 Songs
JAZZ: Chamber Jazz, CLASSICAL: Chamber Music

Show all album songs: Early American: The Melodies of Stephen Foster Songs

With Andy Biskin (clarinet), Pete McCann (guitar and banjo), Chris Washburne (trombone and tuba), and John Hollenbeck (drums and percussion).


Someone figured to dedicate an entire album to Stephen Foster sooner or later, and clarinetist Andy Biskin's Early American makes you wonder why it took so long. Biskin proves the innate dignity of songs like "Old Black Joe" and "Old Folks at Home" rests in their melodies. The only hint of stiff-legged parody is on the wonderful "There's a Good Time Coming," with its delirious eruptions of polka, klezmer, and Mahavishnu-like distortion and fuzz.

Everything on Early American, including an abstracted "Beautiful Dreamer" and a handful of originals more or less in the Foster manner (the most robust a bumping blues called "Thin King Thinking"), attests to Biskin's admiration for this vintage material, despite his cheeky approach to it.
âFrancis Davis, The Village Voice (10 Best CDs of 2006)

Andy Biskin seeks to find the threads between old European folk music, early American songforms and the contemporary avant-garde. Biskinâs Stephen Foster songbook grew from interpreting âJeanie With The Light Brown Hairâ cold on the bandstand. It sparked something in the way heâd been composing for his regular quartet, and the result was this mix of Foster interpretations and original compositions. Biskinâs quartet twists them so that parts of âCamptown Racesâ sounds like Burt Bacharach,â Hard Times Come Again No Moreâ becomes a Civil War dirge march and âThereâs A Good Time Comingâ morphs into a funky boogaloo with Pete McCannâs guitar wailing overhead.

His own six pieces also reach back into the 1800s and snap forward to the present. The title track treads the line between ragtime and klezmer, with Chris Washburneâs trombone and John Hollenbeckâs ricky-tick drumming propelling the tune forward like an old jitney.â Kid Proofâ clatters into Raymond Scott territory, and winds up with McCann creating chaos. That itâs only a minor step from there to a music box rendition of Fosterâs âOld Folks At Home â makes Biskinâs point that all this stuff âas diverse as it appears âis cut from the same cloth.
âJames Hale, Downbeat (Four-star review, 10 Best CDs of 2006)

Fosterâs melodies have existed in our culture for so long that theyâre practically part of the American landscape. Biskinâs arrangements honor their lineage while showing how durable they are, letting utterly familiar songs like âOh! Susannaâ and âJeanie with the Light Brown Hairâ sound freshly minted. The new writing serves to show how clean, melodic lines can be embraced in unabashedly modern, though never dissonant, ways.
âDavid Greenberger, Signal to Noise Magazine

The musicians combine assertive musical forces with Fosterâs original themes. In the process, they turn the clock forward to collect many of the changes that have taken place since the 19th Century composerâs lifetime. Dixieland, bebop, gospel, country and swing enter the picture, interspersed with collective improvisation that runs free and wild. Tuba, electric guitar, wiry percussion and a hot clarinet give the picture plenty of fire. In the process, they reach back and assist Foster in forming impressions of a Southern lifestyle that needed closer examination. Iâm not so sure that Stephen Foster succeeded in that mission, but Andy Biskin and his quartet certainly do. Theyâve given us plenty to think about.

Biskinâs six originals carry out the same kind of enthusiasm without Fosterâs memorable melodies. His music is energetic, creative, and at the leading edge of jazzâs modern mainstream. Recommended for all ages, Biskinâs music puts a smile on the face of modern jazz. âJim Santella, All About Jazz

Mixing mania and melancholy in a rather uncanny way, the clarinet player brings a new vibe to Stephen Foster's nuggets on the recent Early American. A gleeful modernist, his arrangements have no problem giving the material a hotfoot while still allowing their melodies and sentiment to radiate.
âJim, Macnie, The Village Voice

Early American seems a logical continuation of the geographically loaded "mashup" that typifies Biskin's musical approach. The disc exudes American whimsy; American music, in all its stereotypically rhetorical glory, is certainly present, but the listener is also taken deep into the melting pot in some unlikely circumstances. "Camptown Races" is a festering microhistory, augmenting what begins as a simple melodic statement with some decidedly R&B drums, brushstroked to perfection. A side-trip through planing impressionistic harmonies leads, ultimately, to a bit of Bossa Nova as Biskin alludes to "When the Saints Go Marching In"; it's all done so simply, in such a straight-forward manner, that several listens are needed to catch the references as they go by.

The Biskin originals here are perfect foils, feeding on the past while skirting it, delving into rock and blues with ease and dexterity, even a little Ivesian polytonality thrown in for good measure. Nothing on the disc is likely to cause excessive surprise or revolution, such is the comfort and gentleness with which Biskin pushes, or nudges, boundaries.
âMarc Medwin, Cadence

The goals of Mr. Biskin's project are impossible, but straightforward: to create modern jazz utilizing clarinet, tuba, banjo, and Foster's Civil War-era melodies. Mr. Biskin employs the instrumentation of a Dixieland band, and plays tunes that would have seemed old fashioned even to Dixielanders. But it's also remarkably modern: The group's use of guitar or banjo as a chordal instrument in place of the piano, juxtaposed against the leader's expressive, ashen-toned clarinet, gives the project a feel more akin to postmodernists such as Jimmy Giuffre or Tony Scott. (The use of Bill Frisell-like sound washes on Mr. Biskin's liberally rewritten "Camptown Races" might lead one to guess that this was one of the Paul Motian-Joe Lovano groups playing Foster's music in a blindfold test.)

Mr. Biskin has interwoven these freshly conceived two horn-two rhythm arrangements of Foster classics with his own originals, which seem like responses to Foster's melodies as well as interpretations of the mature American vernacular style that Foster's music ultimately led to. "Fits and Starts," for instance, is an odd-meter funk number that Raymond Scott could have written for a New Orleans brass band.

Mr. Biskin may reinterpret Foster's tunes, but he never subverts them or alters their meanings, and in letting "Oh! Susanna" be alternately wistful and jaunty, or in letting "Beautiful Dreamer," in which the melody is played by trombonist Chris Washburne, be haunting and lyrical, he shows us that Foster's mid-19th century hits still have much to say.
âWill Friedwald, New York Sun

Clarinetist Andy Biskin's 2000 debut, Dogmental, unequivocally announced a major jazz vision akin to Don Byron's; one that considers polka, Charles Ives, and Charles Mingus as equally inspiring voices. With this pair of releases, Biskin goes in two related directions at once.
Early American embraces fully a long-tone look at Foster's tunes, genuflecting at points and finding all kinds of space to improvise and rattle the original melodies loose - especially on "Camptown Races," which has McCann shining on some bent-string extensions that are both honest to the piece and bluesy in a mellow, raggedy manner. This is a fabulous example of how a composer today can play the familiar and play with it, changing it to fit the energy. "Nelly Bly" has a nervy edge to it, folksy with McCann's banjo but also rustled ever so creatively. Biskin spreads six of his own tracks through the album, and they are each overflowing with colors, all coming from a band built around a fairly unlikely source for post-bop playing. âAndrew Bartlett, Coda

More than yet another tribute album, Early American is a colorful, vibrant, risk-taking musical adventure that brings Stephen Foster's oeuvre to life in a wholly unexpected way.
âDavid Wayne,

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