Clarinetist and composer Andy Biskin along with fellow virtuoso Dave Ballou (trumpet) and Drew Gress (bass) comprise Trio Tragico. Repeated listening of their debut CD reveal a tightly knit co-operative illuminating Biskin’s wryly humorous original compositions with warmth, skill, and swing, but absolutely nothing in the way of tragedy. At first blush, the Trio comes across as a sort of stripped-down, bare bones ‘chamber-jazz’ project, minus the stuffed shirt. This is partly due to the trio’s prodigious jazz and classical chops, and to the multi-stylistic bent of Biskin’s compositions. While clearly rooted in several types of jazz - everything from Duke and Benny Goodman to Ornette and Don Byron - the Trio’s material also seems to draw a lot of inspiration from popular song (Kurt Weill, Tin Pan Alley, Broadway shows, etc.) as well as 20th Century European classical music. If this sounds a little too highbrow to be a truly enjoyable listening experience, Biskin’s steadfast refusal to take himself too seriously adds an element of surprise, and puts a broad smile on the face of Trio Tragico’s music.
Despite the stipped-down instrumentation and complete lack of a chordal instrument (though Gress’ arco bass fills that role quite admirably on several pieces), the Trio has a broad, full sound. Biskin’s pieces are complex, but not labyrinthine. Collective improvisations, countermelodies, and odd - but not knee-buckling - shifts in tempo, tonality, and time signature all figure prominently. Though the basic sound of the trio varies little from piece to piece - Biskin uses bass clarinet on one track, and Ballou uses mutes on only 2 or 3 tracks - each one explores a variety of moods. The dark, crime-jazz of "I Think Not" stands in stark contrast to the pensive balladry of "You That Knew Him." The opener, "Boomerang," starts off like a Yiddish-inflected dirge before Gress’ bass walks uptempo and leads the trio into a contrastingly jaunty, jazzy B-section. Modern jazz of the post-Ornette variety crops up like some goofy lampshade-wearing uncle on the otherwise sedate "You Who". Biskin also has a sharp ear for piquant melodies, as exemplified by eminently whistleable tunes such as "Hey Day," "Paging Mr. Yes," and "Still Busy (The Honk Song)."
Trio Tragico is the sort of creative, engaging, thinking person’s music that I relish. Played with warmth and gusto; musically eclectic, but not at all cheap or cheesy, Biskin’s compositions will quickly work their way into your heart and mind. Highly entertaining and highly recommended.