Songs from the Alan Lomax Collection
Andy Biskin and 16 Tons
Andy Biskin seeks to find the threads between old European folk music, early American songforms and the contemporary avant-garde. —Downbeat
Clarinetist and composer Andy Biskin, who has been hailed by The New Yorker as “ahead of the curve, long gifted at balancing his musical-Americana fixation with side trips into regions unexplored” turns his focus to legendary folklorist Alan Lomax. The CD features idiosyncratic instrumental interpretations of a dozen songs chosen from Lomax’s mammoth 1960 anthology, The Folk Songs of North America. Biskin takes an unorthodox approach, blending the tunes with his own melodies, Ellingtonian touches, marching band riffs, chamber music sonorities, four-part chorales, and the manic energy of cartoon music to create surprising versions of well-known favorites as well as more obscure ballads, hymns, and children’s game songs. The music is scored for clarinet, drums, and a choir of three trumpets.
Andy Biskin clarinet/bass clarinet
John Carlson trumpet
Dave Smith trumpet
Kenny Warren trumpet
Rob Garcia drums
Cover image by Eric Drooker
Design and hand lettering by Lizi Breit
“Songs from the Alan Lomax Collection” Liner Notes
Alan Lomax (1915-2002) had a profound influence on our understanding of American folk music. His legacy includes thousands of essential field recordings, as well as anthologies, essays, and groundbreaking research that seeks to unravel the very meaning of music within a culture. He was a tireless advocate for what he, way ahead of his time, termed cultural equity: giving all cultures an equal voice and promoting their diversity and preservation.
Alan came into my life when I was in my 20s. My first job right out of college was as his research assistant, and I spent a couple of monkish years poring over manuscripts and computer printouts in a dusty office on West 98th Street in Manhattan.
Alan was a bear-like presence—impulsive, intimidating, and wily—but also passionate, idealistic, and fearless. He had an uncanny knack for getting what he needed from people, often relying on a toothy, southern-gentlemanly smile that he would flash to charm a favor or make a point. He was a truly original thinker, and like many of that sort, he lived a messy a life, often relying on others to do the detail and clean-up work. I didn’t expect that to be what I’d be doing for him with my fancy anthropology degree, but it turned out to be a big part of the job.
I spent two years working with Alan and then I moved on. But over the years, I often sensed there was still some unfinished business. Sure, I was proud of and grateful for my association with him, and I loved telling colorful tales about the experience, but I couldn’t honestly say that I was a true-blue believer. There was just too much messiness: Had he exploited and patronized the musicians he recorded? Were there critical gaps in his scholarship? Was he dismissive of those outside his sphere, asserting he alone knew the “true path?” And perhaps most importantly, how was this music relevant to me as a player and composer? I was firmly entrenched in jazz—the more experimental the better—while Alan believed everything good about the music I loved had been worked out by 1930. And though I enjoyed listening to traditional and world music, I was put off by the pious folkie ethic that insisted that in order to be valid and authentic, performers had to adhere to some idealized, pure form of a style. I wanted to write and play music my own way.
So I did go my own way, checking in with Alan every few years, sometimes helping him sort out a computer glitch or technical issue with his research, until his health started to decline in the late 1990s. By this point there was renewed interest in his work. Alan’s daughter, Anna Lomax Wood, took up her father’s legacy, directing the Association for Cultural Equity, which helped bring many of Alan’s unfinished projects to fruition, including his visionary Global Jukebox. His trove of recordings were organized and reissued, finding young and passionate new listeners. Some of his records were even sampled for electronic dance music hits.
Gradually I found myself gravitating back into Alan’s orbit. I was continually crossing paths with his old colleagues and we swapped our stories. I was also hanging out more with musicians outside of my art-jazz bubble, sitting in at chaotic jam sessions with pickers, strummers, and fiddlers. I discovered by chance that many of my hand-scrawled work-notes had found a home in the Library of Congress as part of the Alan Lomax Manuscript Collection. And by one of those strange New York coincidences, I ended up living in the same building Alan had resided in when I knew him.
I was riveted by Johns Szwed’s incisive 2010 biography, Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World, and it revealed how little I knew about my former boss. When I met Alan, his career seemed in full flower; it was sobering to see that the period I knew him spanned only a few pages near the end of the book. Now, decades later, here I was tracing his pathway from a young man to middle age, as I simultaneously pondered how I’d covered those same years in my own life, and the role he had played in them. I realized the time had come to take another look at Alan’s legacy and see if I could find my own voice in the music he championed.
While I was working for him, Alan sometimes gave me copies of his records and books, often with warm, personal inscriptions. One such gift was his last big anthology, from 1960, The Folk Songs of North America. It’s a colossal tome, literally all over the map, which seems to be its intention. Here’s how Alan begins the introduction:
The map sings. The chanteys surge along the rocky Atlantic seaboard, across the Great Lakes and round the moon-curve of the Gulf of Mexico. . . From Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and New England, the ballads, straight and tall as spruce, march towards the West. Inland from the Sea Islands, slave melodies sweep across the whole South from the Carolinas to Texas. And out on the shadows of the Smoky and Blue Ridge mountains the old ballads, lonesome love songs, and hoedowns echo through the upland South into the hills of Arkansas and Oklahoma. There in the Ozarks the Northern and Southern song families swap tunes and make a marriage.
The book feels like a hybrid blend of songbook and scholarly survey. Alan selected 317 songs, grouped by region and genre; some are obvious and essential, others obscure and almost unplayable. There are straightforward piano arrangements, plentiful and fascinating song source notes, maps, pen and ink illustrations, a guitar and banjo guide, and a detailed discography. But at over 600 pages, it’s too unwieldy to prop on the upright for a family sing-along.
Alan begins the chapters with commentary on each song, sometimes writing about the song itself, at other times about its social, historical, or musical context. Most striking is his poetic introduction about the purpose and meaning of folk music. Here’s another excerpt:
The first function of music, especially of folk music, is to produce a feeling of security for the listener by voicing the particular quality of a land and the life of its people. To the traveler, a line from a familiar song may bring back all the familiar emotions of home, for music is a magical summing-up of the patterns of family, of love, of conflict, and of work which give a community its special feel and which shape the personalities of its members. Folk song calls the native back to his roots and prepares him emotionally to dance, worship, work, fight, or make love in ways normal to his place.
This idea that a people’s songs are inextricably correlated to their culture—“a magical summing up”—is the germ of Cantometrics, the cross-cultural research that would occupy the last decades of Alan’s life.
Like other things Lomax, The Folk Songs of North America is both an impressive and messy achievement. But, truth be told, I had scarcely ever glanced at it. It had been sitting idle on the bookshelf of every place I’d lived in since he gave it to me. Yet now as I embarked on this new journey, it somehow seemed right that I should use FSNA as my guidebook.
So I figured out a way to perch the thing on a music stand and started playing through the songs on my clarinet. I had no set agenda—I just wanted to see what bubbled up. It felt strange to be learning this music from a songbook. As I played the piano transcriptions it often felt like I was reading awkwardly translated poetry, and I had to seek out actual performances of the songs to make sense of them. Gradually I settled on a handful of tunes whose melodies grabbed me and seemed sturdy enough to for me to mess with. But how?
Alan had a genius for finding singers who not only gave us songs we’d never heard before, but also delivered intimate, unforgettable performances by infusing the words and melodies with all they knew and lived. The challenge I gave myself was to convey the essence of the music without a singer, using the instruments alone to carry the tunes. I wanted an ensemble that could mimic the call and response of a vocal group, that could play both gently and brash, that could sound relaxed and ragged or as tight as a dance band. For reasons I can’t quite explain, I settled on a line-up of clarinet, drums, and a choir of three trumpets. When I told people my idea, I got quizzical looks. Three trumpets? No guitar, banjo, or bass? No singer? Maybe later, I said.
The working method I arrived at was to intercut the songs with my own melodies and short improvisations. Sometimes the words suggested a direction. Sometimes I incorporated multiple versions of a tune, or phrases from related songs. Sometimes I just let the melody speak for itself. At the first rehearsal some things worked right off the bat, but there were still plenty of challenges: getting the clarinet to balance the brass, finding interesting ways to frame the improvised passages, figuring out how the drums could function as another voice, mastering the dark arts of trumpet mutes. But we gelled fast, and after a few gigs and it was hard to imagine it could ever be any other way.
I decided to call the band 16 Tons, after the Merle Travis classic, #154 in the book. We don’t play it yet, but we’ll get to it.
One of my favorite Lomax recordings is his Southern Journey, a 13-volume collection from around the same time as FSNA. For that series, Alan returned to many of the rural southern locales he had visited early in his career, excited to find new songs and singers. Alan always relished the fact that he and I were both displaced Texans living in exile in New York City, and I think of this CD as my own homecoming journey. I hope it proves to be a good travelling companion for you.
Big thanks to John, Rob, Dave, and Kenny for their patience, support, creativity, and inspired playing. Thanks to Oliver, who knew me then and now, for his sharp eye and ear, and to Olivier and Barbès for giving us a forum to work things out. Thanks to Limor and Amal for their invaluable feedback, encouragement, and overindulgence. And most of all, thanks to my Kickstarter community who banded together to make this recording happen.
John A. Stone wrote the lyrics to Sweet Betsy from Pike in the 1850’s to a well-known English tune, “Vilikens and His Dinah.” The song chronicles the adventures of Betsy and her lover Ike, who cross the mountains from Missouri with Two yoke of cattle, a large yeller dog/A tall Shanghai rooster, and a one-spotted hog. They are seeking their fortunes in the California Gold Rush. By the 15th verse they’ve made it to El Dorado and are married and divorced. It’s a melody so perfect it needs no embellishment or accompaniment, and I use it to open and close this collection.
One of my earliest musical memories is hearing Burl Ives’s gentle version of Grey Goose (featured in the movie Fantastic Mr. Fox), especially his soothing “lord, lord, lord” refrain. But I also love Mike Seeger’s darker and edgier version, from the Seeger Family Animal Folksongs for Children. (We discovered that indispensable collection when our daughter was three, and for several years it was the soundtrack for every car trip.) The song depicts a hunting party run amok, with the goose surviving bullets, knives, and fire. For our rendition I jump between several versions of the melody, to underscore the sneakiness of that elusive bird. Alan says it’s a song about a people being stronger than their oppressors. (Full disclosure, this song, which was also recorded by Nirvana and Lead Belly, comes from another Lomax anthology, Folk Song U.S.A.)
Blue Tail Fly (“Jimmie Crack Corn”) was a minstrel song in the 1840s and a favorite of Abraham Lincoln’s. It was revived 100 years later during the folksong revival, and became a well-known children’s song. It was a big hit for the Andrews Sisters and Alan is said to have taught it to Burl Ives.
Our version begins with a northeastern ballad, Springfield Mountain, about a fatal rattlesnake bite that fells Timothy Merrick in 1761. There are other, better-known performances of Springfield, including Woodie Guthrie’s. Alan writes that this version was “recorded from the singing of J.C. Kennison, an itinerant Vermont scissor-grinder, 1939.”
Down in the Valley at first seems like a nostalgic, bucolic reverie, but it turns out to be the lament of a jealous, heartbroken lover, sung from his prison cell.
Down in the valley, valley so low,
Hang your head over, hear the wind blow.
If you don’t love me, love whom you please,
But throw your arms round me, give my heart ease.
Write me a letter send it by mail
And back it in care of the Birmingham jail.
House Carpenter depicts a familiar folk theme: the demon lover. In this case he takes the form of a beguiling sailor who seduces the house carpenter’s wife, enticing her to sail away with him to “where the grass grows green on the banks of the Bittery.” The ballad, Alan writes, “represents the longings of pioneer women for love or an escape from their log cabin life—both sinful wishes to the Calvinist. The ballad’s heroine has one moment of romantic splendor. Then she is harshly punished.”
Go Fish is my own tune, loosely inspired by folk themes.
Lily Munroe tells the story of a girl who disguises herself as a man and rescues her sweetheart on the battlefield. It’s also known as “Lay the Lily Lo,” “Jack Munro,” and “Jack-a-roe,” and was recorded by the Grateful Dead and Joan Baez. The melody was repurposed in the 1940’s for the labor movement song, “Which Side Are You On?”
Tom Dooley is a North Carolina folk song about infidelity and revenge, based on the 1866 murder of Laura Foster by Tom Dula in Wilkes County. Several singers have been credited with the song’s rediscovery, each with their own direct family connection to the actual historical event. In 1958 it was a #1 hit for the Kingston Trio. For our version I’ve blended the jaunty 1929 Grayson and Whitter rendition with the sanitized Kingston Trio arrangement. We open with the trumpets imitating Doc Watson’s harmonica from my favorite recording of the song.
Muskrat is a children’s song, also known as “Rattlesnake,” collected from Aunt Molly Jackson. Jackson grew up in the coal mining culture of Harlan County, Kentucky, and worked as a midwife, folksinger, and union activist. It’s another favorite of my family’s from the from Seegers’ Animal Folksongs for Children.
Knock John Booker is an African American children’s game song. Alan’s father, John Lomax, recorded Aunt Molly McDonald singing it on a farm in Alabama in 1940, and as far as I can tell, there are no other available renditions. When you hear the lyrics you realize it’s a slave-era protest song. Alan writes, “‘Booker’ is another form of buckra, a word of African origin meaning ‘white’.”
Gon’ knock John Booker to the low ground
Tu-da darlin’ day
That lady bound to beat you,
Tu-da darlin’ day
Am I Born to Die is a hymn from the sacred harp shape-note tradition. It was published in 1817 and we stick pretty closely to the original, eerie four-part harmony.
Carl Sandburg included She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain in his 1927 collection, The American Songbag. It’s based on an old spiritual, “O Who Will Drive the Chariot When She Comes,” which describes the Rapture of the Second Coming. The tune is often associated with the railroad and there are also juicy Freudian interpretations. The song’s “she” was at one time thought to be Mother Jones, coming to organize the coal miners.
Andy Biskin Ibid
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
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.—Read more Act Necessary press clips here.
“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
This is guileless, charming, and entertaining music that will make you feel a little better about the world. —John Shand, Sydney Morning Herald
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.—Read more Not So Fast press clips here.
Early American: The Melodies of Stephen Foster
Andy Biskin Quartet
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
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).—Read more Early American: The Melodies of Stephen Foster press clips here.
“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
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
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).—Read more Trio Tragico press clips here.
Andy Biskin Quintet
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
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).—Read more Dogmental press clips here.
“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