Andy Biskin Ibid
Clarinetist-composer Andy Biskin is up to his old tricks again on Act Necessary, the debut release by his new quartet, Ibid. Mashing up everything from polkas and New Orleans jazz to funk and Tin Pan Alley, Biskin shoehorns sophisticated compositional elements into epic miniature tunes. His all-star quartet, featuring cornetist Kirk Knuffke, trombonist Brian Drye, and drummer Jeff Davis, handles each musical hairpin turn with infectious enthusiasm and deep insight into the music’s many subtleties.
The impeccable horn trifecta of Biskin, Knuffke and Drye were seemingly born for these cinematic histrionics, interlocking, weaving in and about, taking turns and trading light jabs with a wielding of bubbly phraseology as Davis guides the rumpus with a swaggering backbeat.... While Biskin receives top billing as Ibid’s brain trust, Act Necessary presents a group of equals brimming with flawless interaction. —Brad Cohan, New York City Jazz Record
“Act Necessary” Liner Notes
Ibid. is an abbreviation of the Latin ibidum, meaning “in the same place.”
You use it in footnotes to show that a source is the same as the one previously cited.
It’s a curiously specific term that doesn’t get much play outside of academia. Subtler than the cold clone of the ditto, it indicates an assortment of items springing from a common source. And for me, it seemed like a worthy watchword for making music: a place where a diverse assembling of players, instruments, listeners and notes might commune together.
Ibid formed in the summer of 2011. At the time I was content in my own private ibid of writing music for various groups with two or three horns plus bass. No drummer meant I could go for a chamber music sound where everyone could be heard, with the bass providing a harmonic and rhythmic underpinning. (It also meant less set-up time.)
Then a simple idea emerged: by losing the bass and featuring drums, the music opened up in ways I both expected and never before considered. It’s easy to let the trombone supply a bass line, but were there other options? A single horn plays a swing line with only brushes in the background while the listener imagines a bass line. Solo drums answer a wind choir. Two horns and rhythm vamp under a solo.
For this collection I repurposed an older tune, re-examined some familiar songbook forms, and tried my hand at a funk line, a second-line march, and a roundabout melody with a part for my dad’s old glockenspiel. After a while, the music started to write itself and I stopped thinking about what was missing in the band, and more about what was there.
My bandmates Kirk, Brian, and Jeff have been ibidding together for a long time. It’s been inspiring to tap into their world, and to create a new place collectively where everyone’s distinct musical personality can shine.
Our same places have included our living rooms and Brian’s performance space, Ibeam, but most often we’ve presented the music at Barbès, Olivier Conan’s unassuming oasis of musical ferment in the heart of Brooklyn that can feel like a full house with an audience of five or fifty.
When we play live I like to invite the audience to be ibid with us. When everyone is truly in same place, the borderlines between players, instruments, notes on the page, notes not on the page, sounds in the room, and ears, heads, and hearts begin to blur and the real magic happens.
As you listen now, I invite you to ibid with our band and this music!
As a final footnote, a round of thank yous to Kirk, Brian, Jeff, and to Olivier, Edward Ratliff, Joe Karten, and Limor Tomer.
Not So Fast
The Spokes is a unique wind trio co-led by three composer/instrumentalists, who each have a distinctive musical personality and diverse history on the New York music scene: Andy Biskin (clarinet), Curtis Hasselbring (trombone) and Phillip Johnston (soprano saxophone). All three compose for the group with their own personal approach, but their music is linked by a lyrical sense of melody, a wry sense of humor, and a distinctive, idiosyncratic compositional voice.
On this debut recording, The Spokes channel influences from early 20th-century chamber music, New Orleans jazz, Third Stream music, Civil War brass bands, and contemporary classical idioms, all delivered with wit and agility (think Jimmy Giuffre’s trios, Debussy’s chamber pieces, or Raymond Scott’s horn section). Also influential are the many groups led by the composers in their individual careers, such as The Microscopic Septet, Trio Tragico, The New Mellow Edwards, Fast ‘N’ Bulbous, and Decoupage.
"This is guileless, charming, and entertaining music that will make you feel a little better about the world." —John Shand, Sydney Morning Herald
Early American: The Melodies of Stephen Foster
Andy Biskin Quartet
This CD features songs by Stephen Foster, as well as six Biskin originals. Although Biskin takes liberties with Foster's tunes, he preserves the beauty and sentiment of the songs while casting them in a new light. Biskin's own pieces for the quartet are equally melodious and varied in form, uniting elements from early and modern jazz with dance and classical music. The quartet features some of New York's most searching and genre-defying musicians, including John Hollenbeck (percussion), Pete McCann (guitar/banjo), and Chris Washburne (trombone/tuba).
"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." —Jim Macnie, The Village Voice
“Early American: The Melodies of Stephen Foster” Liner Notes
Early American: The Melodies of Stephen Foster
“Old songs, new songs, ev’ry kind of song. I noted them down as I read them along.”
–from The Song of All Songs by Stephen Foster (1826–1864)
A few years ago I had a regular duo gig with my old friend, the pianist Joe Kerr, at a private restaurant run by a fancy New York health club. On slow nights we’d flip through the songbooks Joe carried around in his bag and read through whatever we came across, the odder the better. Instead of the usual standards, we’d play Mancini, Mozart, Floyd Cramer, Victor Herbert, Bob Wills, and finish off with “Amazing Grace.”
One evening we stumbled on “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair.” I can’t say that when we finished our rendition there was a reverent hush in the room, or even polite applause, but Joe and I were duly moved. Like a painting by an old master, the song felt like a self-contained world in miniature, perfect and timeless.
Around that same time I’d formed a band with clarinet, guitar, tuba and percussion. We’d been playing my own compositions, but I decided to try making an arrangement of “Jeanie,” and when I finished it, I felt that I had discovered a new way of writing for the group. Over the next couple of years I arranged more Stephen Foster tunes and in each one I found something that grabbed me. Mostly it was in the shape of the melodies, how they unfolded so naturally, like a good story.
As i continued to write for the quartet I never thought about composing in a “Foster style” or transforming his tunes into my own style. But gradually the two halves of our songbook started to intertwine. Today our repertory consists of about two dozen originals and almost a dozen Fosters. When we perform we alternate between the two, and somehow they seem to complement each other.
The first and last tracks on this album are recordings of a wind-up music box from the late 1800s that used 17-inch disks cut from tin to play the music of the day. Through sheet music, live performances, player piano rolls, and mechanical devices like this one, Foster’s songs almost instantly found their way into the nation’s collective culture. It’s amazing to think that within a few years of their publication—and without radio or recordings—just about every American knew these songs by heart.
Ironically, this same public knew almost nothing about Foster’s sad life: he died an alcoholic at the age of 37—alone, broke and depressed. His last published song was “Beautiful Dreamer,” but he left behind sketches for many others. On a scrap of paper found in his pocket when he died he had written the phrase “dear friends and gentle hearts.”
During Foster’s lifetime people were already assuming that “Oh! Susanna” and “Old Folks at Home” were folk songs that had been passed down through the ages. A century and a half later, perhaps the melodies have aged better than the lyrics. Nevertheless, that Foster’s tunes continue to inspire and delight us speaks to their true worth.
— Andy Biskin
The beautifully crafted miniature compositions on this album fuse jazz, classical, and social music into highly personal hybrid forms. Biskin's composing for Trio Tragico emphasizes ensemble balance and its overall sound, rather than individual soloists. Joining Biskin are two virtuosos of modern improvised music, Dave Ballou (trumpet) and Drew Gress (bass).
"If today's fragmented jazz community resembled the fraternity it was during the classic periods of labels such as Blue Note and Contemporary, clarinetist Andy Biskin's compositions might be showing up on many albums besides his own.... Trio Tragico is at once relaxed, ambitious and deceptive. It's a chamber-jazz record in the most veracious sense." —K. Leander Williams, Time Out New York
Andy Biskin Quintet
Andy Biskin's acclaimed debut album on Gunther Schuller's GM Recordings, "Dogmental" is scored for the traditional New Orleans frontline of clarinet, trumpet, and trombone, and features 15 Biskin originals that pick up where Dixieland leaves off. With Ron Horton (trumpet), Bruce Eidem (trombone), Ben Allison (bass), and Matt Wilson (drums).
Critics Pick 2001: One of the best records of the year. —Jazziz
"Andy Biskin's effervescent quintet slams neo-Dixieland, Jimmy Giuffre-esque chamber jazz, and Raymond Scott-inspired zaniness together and still finds plenty of room for inspired improvisation and offbeat composition." —The New Yorker
“Dogmental” Liner Notes
A Producer’s Note
We met by chance in an elevator, Andy Biskin and I. He recognized me, and in the less than two minutes it took to get to our respective floors, I learned that he was a clarinetist, that he composed music, and led some kind of a chamber jazz group.
Some months later I received a tape containing a dozen Biskin compositions for a quartet of clarinet, trombone, bass, and drums. Receiving several dozens of tapes a year, usually of negligible interest, I was surprised to be more than impressed by what I heard. I was enchanted, amazed and intrigued to find music of such wonderful originality and sophisticated wit and humor. Humor in music is a rare commodity; often enough attempted, it also often fails. If not done skillfully, the music just remains bad and silly.
Like humor itself, it must be approached ‘seriously’ and ‘perfectly,’ and timing is everything. Like humor itself, it is best based on ordinary, common situations turned loose by clever distortion, exaggeration, surprise and a chaplinesque love of the subject. Biskin’s music here is based on thrice-familiar musical objets trouvé (“found objects,” as the French have it), which are then twisted and reshaped into comic creatures, to lead their own lives. Such manipulations have to be done subtly and concisely, with a fine, precise edge, offspring of both the intellect and emotion. Anything less than that, the music becomes merely obvious and vulgar, a mish-mash of trite cliches. We are here not in the world of guffaws, but of wry chuckles and inner delights.
I think Biskin treads this fine line brilliantly, and in his way associates himself—I don’t mean consciously nor (worse) self-consciously—with such great earlier genres as the best Hollywood cartoon music, the choicest Raymond Scott and Spike Jones, and even earlier the witty, scintillating scores of Georges Auric in France in the 1930s for the films of Rene Clair (A Nous la Liberté) and Cocteau’s 1928 Italian Straw Hat.
While using well-known, simple forms and materials—march (Flim Flam), polka (Sad Commentary), waltz (Rondel), Latin tinges (Brunching at the Bistro)—there is even a brilliant mariachi bit, delivered by Ron Horton, in Flim Flam—Biskin’s music is transformed into marvelous jazz by the players’ improvisations, contributions that almost miraculously amplify Biskin’s own harlequinades.
In his own playing, for all its originality, Biskin pays loving unslavish tribute to his clarinet forebears Pee Wee Russell and Jimmy Guiffre, just as Bruce Eidem delights in reminding us of everyone from Tricky Sam Nanton to Lawrence Brown to Urbie Green, and Ron Horton the likes of Lee Morgan. And how subtly yet enterprisingly both rhythm sections contribute to the ‘Biskin effect.’
Whether in the sudden ‘wrong notes’ as in Field Days; the theory lessons in ‘augmentation’ and ‘diminution’ (expanding and shrinking materials) as in Laughing Stock; the haunting balladry of Little Elsa; in the rousing virtuosity of No Bones and Off Peak; the outright zaniness of Dogmental, the lacerating raucous outbursts in Rondel; the delicious repetitiveness of Laughing Stock—I feel that Biskin gets it right all the time, with superb timing and exquisite taste.
Here I’ve told you why I felt compelled to produce this delectable CD. Now it’s your turn. I truly hope you will find in it the same pleasures I did.
— Gunther Schuller
When I was 15 I wanted to have my own band. But what kind of band? All my friends had rock bands, but I played the clarinet, and there were no clarinets in rock bands.
I started playing when I was nine. That was the year my father, the timpanist with the San Antonio Symphony, brought home a plastic Bundy model and left it on my bed for me to discover one day after school. I didn't know what it was but I was intrigued with the shiny keys, the reeds, the smell of cork grease, and most of all, how you had to assemble it like a kit before playing it. "This is a clarinet," my father said. "It is to be your instrument." The moment was heavy with prophecy and wonder.
Private lessons, marching band, solo and ensemble contest, duets with my mother on piano. But what about my band? One Saturday afternoon, while scouring through the moldy stacks of Southern Music, a venerable publishing house in downtown San Antonio, I came upon a batch of arrangements for two clarinets, trumpet, trombone, and tuba. There were polkas and waltzes, marches, even light classics like "Poet and Peasant Overture." Each booklet cost seventy cents; a set of five was three dollars.
One of the booklets was called "The Hungry Five." I quickly adopted the name and recruited four renegades from the school band. We set to work learning the music and memorizing the impossibly corny jokes and band schtick included in the front of the booklets. Soon we had a Hungry Five savings account, uniforms (white dress shirt, Boy Scout shorts, loud socks, suspenders), and were playing parties, high school talent shows, and the local Wurstfest.
Inside the front cover of each booklet was printed the following: "It is suggested that the compositions be played first in true classic manner and, when properly mastered, liberties may be taken for added effects." Though the terms "liberties" and "added effects" were left undefined, we soon figured out a way to make the music our own.
It was only recently that I realized how little my current band has strayed from sensibilities of the old Hungry Five. For several years I had a quartet with Bruce Eidem on trombone, Andy Eulau on bass, and Bruce Hall on drums. The main inspiration for this configuration was the incredible Steve Lacy/Roswell Rudd band from the sixties. Four tunes from the quartet included here.
Three years ago I added Ron Horton's trumpet to the band and started working with Ben Allison and Matt Wilson. My original idea was to update the traditional New Orleans style, using the same front line of trumpet, clarinet, and trombone. But something different seems to have emerged, and now when I take inventory of our repertory, I'm surprised at the preponderance of polkas, waltzes, marches, and little tone poems over "pure jazz" tunes.
The 15 compositions on this album were written over the last eight years. Most of them were first performed at the Cornelia Street Cafe. The club, which occupies a narrow, resonant basement room below a Greenwich Village restaurant, was the first to book the band, and it's still one of our favorite places to play.
For every performance I try to bring in a couple of new tunes. Somehow, just by imagining the band on the bandstand, with sound of each player in my ears, I'm inspired to come up with something new. Some pieces work right out of box, others may take a while to settle in, while still others get played once with much hooplah, and then are never mentioned again.
But what could be more thrilling than to work late into the night cooking up melodies, harmonies, and rhythms for these wonderful musicians, printing up the parts, gathering together the players, and then, in the true Hungry Five spirit, performing the tunes knowing that "liberties may be taken for added effects."
— Andy Biskin