Avant innovators rescue standards, pop overtures, and plantation lullabies

The lack of a common repertoire means it's every man for himself in determining which alien material is close enough for jazz, but this has delivered unexpected blessings, ranging from Uri Caine's Mozart to Don Byron's Mickey Katz. 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. American popular song begins with Foster's mid-19th-century plantation melodies, however much we shy away from their demeaning lyrics, which Foster on at least one occasion specified were to be delivered "a la niggerando." Leading a quartet with Chris Washburne on trombone or tuba, Pete McCann on guitar or banjo, and John Hollenbeck on drums (so into it and resourceful you'd swear he was playing spoons here and there), 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.

David S. Ware, ecstatic standard-bearer
Mephisto/DAPR/ZUMA Press
David S. Ware, ecstatic standard-bearer


David S. Ware Quartet
Thirsty Ear

David Binney
Cities and Desire
Criss Cross

Andy Biskin Quartet
Early American: The Melodies of Stephen Foster

Andy Biskin
Trio Tragico

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  • But this song was intended as a parody to begin with, Foster's adaptation of a temperance anthem. 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. Trio Tragico, a simultaneous release featuring Biskin with trumpeter Dave Ballou, bassist Drew Gress, and no drummer, gives a clearer picture of him as a composer with a flair for quick little Monk-like tunes with well-constructed bridges, and as a clarinetist whose intonation is so good he can go sharp without sounding shrill. But Early American is the one that shows his reach.

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