Andy Biskin and 16 Tons – Songs from the Alan Lomax Collection –  Andorfin ANDRF-007, 54:54 [6/27/18] ****:

Folk songs passed on from generation to generation have infused nearly every aspect of modern music from classical to rock, so it’s no surprise jazz musicians have mined folk territory for inspiration since the start of jazz. Jazz clarinetist Andy Biskin is no stranger to American folk music. He began as an anthropologist and spent two years working with legendary folklorist and musicologist Alan Lomax. Biskin’s 2006 effort, Early American: The Melodies of Stephen Foster used Foster’s folk-ish compositions as a bedrock for jazz interpretation. Now, Biskin has come full circle on his 54-minute project, Songs from the Alan Lomax Collection, credited to his new band called 16 Tons, named after Merle Travis’ classic hit single. In some ways, this is an album long in the making, since the process slowly gestated over decades until it reached fruition after Biskin read John Szwed’s 2010 tome, Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World. Biskin says, “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.” Szwed’s book pushed Biskin to finally spend time with Lomax’s huge 1960 anthology, The Folk Songs of North America and to start playing songs from Lomax’s book. Biskin explains, “The challenge I gave myself was to convey the essence of the music without a singer. 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.” The resulting quintet and their debut record includes Biskin on clarinet and bass clarinet, Rob Garcia on drums and John Carlson, Dave Smith and Kenny Warren’s three trumpets. Smith’s trumpet is in the right channel; Carlson is in the center; and Warren is in the left channel. No banjo, no guitar, no bass and no singer. The unconventional upshot is delightfully unexpected versions of well-known favorites such as “Down in the Valley,” “Tom Dooley” and 11 more folk songs. Biskin’s methodology was to intertwine the material with his own melodies and short improvisations.

Biskin opens and closes with the 1850’s piece, “Sweet Betsy from Pike,” which chronicles a pioneer couple who head west to seek a fortune during the California Gold Rush. Biskin avows, “It’s a melody so perfect it needs no embellishment or accompaniment.” Each trumpeter takes a turn soloing on the sublime and lyrical melody and the trumpets and clarinet also crisscross harmonically. “Sweet Betsy from Pike” is reprised at the CD’s conclusion as a brief outro. Biskin and his group hit a swinging stride on “Grey Goose,” done by everyone from Nirvana to folk singer Burl Ives. Contemporary film buffs might recognize it from 2009’s animated film feature, Fantastic Mr. Fox. During “Grey Goose” Biskin and 16 Tons jump between several melodic changes to underscore the bird’s sly ways of eluding getting eaten. Another fine track is the lengthy “Blue Tail Fly,” an 1840’s minstrel song reportedly well-liked by Abraham Lincoln. “Blue Tail Fly” is upbeat, bright and full of brassy enthusiasm and cheery improvisational moments.

Portrait Andy Biskin, by Rebecca Greenfield

Andy Biskin
© Rebecca Greenfield

Biskin also modifies some folk songs which have dark undertones. “Down in the Valley” is a traditional country-blues tune—about a convict stuck in a Southern prison cell—which has been recorded by Ives, the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia and others. Biskin arranges “Down in the Valley” in a somber, melancholy way with smidgeons of lighter shades. There’s a similar atmosphere to the lesser-known “House Carpenter,” which focuses on a sailor who seduces a house carpenter’s wife, who discovers too late that her new lover is the devil in disguise. Infidelity and accompanying revenge or retribution also coalesces on the ironically jaunty “Tom Dooley,” a 1958 number one hit for the Kingston Trio and subsequently covered by Neil Young, the Carolina Chocolate Drops and more. Biskin blends the Kingston Trio’s arrangement with the earlier 1929 Grayson and Whitter version. During the introduction, the trumpets emulate the harmonica from Doc Watson’s 1964 translation.

Biskin was also stimulated by hymns, specifically the older “Am I Born to Die?” which emanates from the sacred harp, shape-note tradition. The three trumpets and clarinet magically merge to mirror a four-part vocal harmony which comes from shape-note musical conventions. Garcia maintains a firm jazz foundation which the horns ride atop. Biskin and 16 Tons final, full track is the optimistic “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain,” based on an old spiritual, although the piece is often associated with railroads. “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain” is a joyous and imaginative combination of folk and jazz, swings like crazy, and is an excellent example of how the three trumpets and the lone clarinet interact with aplomb, self-assurance and delightful demeanor. Biskin was also impelled to write something in the same, folksy vein, the eight-minute “Go Fish,” loosely kindled by folk themes. “Go Fish” has a slow, bluesy backdrop and a steady rhythm which affords space and room for the drums, trumpets and clarinet to converse and improvise. Hopefully, Biskin will continue to find encouragement from the numerous folk songs Lomax recorded and catalogued. Maybe next time the ensemble will tackle Travis’ tune which gave them their name.

Performing Artists:

Andy Biskin – clarinet, bass clarinet, producer, arranger; John Carlson, Dave Smith, Kenny Warren – trumpet; Rob Garcia – drums

TrackList:
Sweet Betsy from Pike
Gray Goose
Blue Tail Fly
Down in the Valley
House Carpenter
Go Fish
Lily Munroe
Tom Dooley
Muskrat
Knock John Booker
Am I Born to Die?
She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain
Sweet Betsy from Pike

—Doug Simpson

Link to more info and track samples: