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Updating some old faves

Reviewed October 2006

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

Strudelmedia: 2006

To hear sound clips or learn more about this release, Turbula recommends viewing its Amazon.com entry.

In less innovative hands, the tunes here could have come off as sounding quite sappy. These are the familiar melodies of Stephen Foster (1826-64): "I Dream of Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair", "Beautiful Dreamer," "Old Folks at Home," "Camptown Races." Almost any American of a certain age has sung these songs; they were, for a time, part of the school curriculum, and I suspect that many a schoolroom wall and window were rattled by exuberant, ragtag 35-voice choirs belting out "Oh! Susanna."

Credit Andy Biskin and his quartet for freshening up these songs with a mix of loving reverence and modern-leaning verve. Biskin is a New York-based clarinetist, and his ensemble includes Chris Washburne on tuba and trombone, Pete McCann on banjo and guitar, along with John Hollenbeck on drums and percussion. The banjo/tuba/clarinet combination suggests an old-timey feel, and there is much of that on the set, but Biskin and company also stretch Foster's melodies a bit, showing off some fresh angles to the tunes; and McCann brings in his electric guitar to wail at times, in a way that Mr. Foster might never have imagined.

Mixed in the familiar sounds are six Andy Biskin originals that complement Foster's approach, pulling it toward the twenty-first century. On his "Thin King Thinking" the clarinet trills the blues in front of a tuba oompa before the melody disassembles with twangs and clatters, sounding like a tipsy house band in a nineteenth century cat house; and on "Kid Proof," the group takes the music into a romp, each member sharing the moments of sound-making – a clarinet toodle, a guitar twang, a tuba huff, the drums going clatter and tink.

The Andy Biskin Quartet shines a fresh light on the sound of Stephen Foster.

Review by Dan McClenaghan. Dan is a writer living in Oceanside, Calif. Read his biography on his AllAboutJazz.com page.

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