There is a timeless beauty within the melodies of Stephen Foster. Unfortunately, with the exception of "Old Folks At Home," contemporary jazz musicians have virtually ignored the possibilities for experimentation inherent in the rich melodic content of many of Foster’s 19th-century gems. On Early American: The Melodies of Stephen Foster, clarinetist Andy Biskin puts a modern twist on a handful of the composer’s tunes and contributes six originals in the style of the legendary American icon.
The arrangements range from traditional sounding ("Nelly Bly") to high-octane, rocked-out energy ("There’s a Good Time Coming"). Biskin is careful, however, not to completely do away with the familiarity of the music; the modern harmonic and rhythmic treatments given to "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair" and "Camptown Races," for example, do not detract from common sentiments usually associated with the music. One of the disc’s most intriguing treatments of a Foster classic is the style-shifting arrangement of "Oh! Susanna," moving quite effortlessly from the influence of Bach to Bernstein.
Biskin’s own tunes seem to adhere to the Americana ideal inherent in Foster’s music from a 21st century perspective. The bouncy "Early American," blues-drenched "Thin King Thinking" and graceful "Dom Casual" all have hints of the past, with modern, angular elements.
Aside from Biskin’s flawless clarinet playing, the music succeeds with the help of the highly adept Pete McCann (guitar, banjo), Chris Washburne (trombone, tuba) and John Hollenbeck (drums, percussion). McCann is a brilliant stylist, who, in the style of Bill Frisell, pays his debt to tradition with fresh, unpredictable turns. Washburne fills out the bottom end with an unrelenting, at times graceful, approach on the tuba and trombone. Hollenbeck easily plows through the varying tempos and styles of the music with unwavering intensity.
With exceptional arrangements and superb musicianship, Early American: The Melodies of Stephen Foster stands out as a highly original take on the vast American musical landscape.