I must confess that I was not particularly enamored of Stephen Foster’s music prior to hearing Early American - and it took me several listens to be thoroughly convinced that Foster’s iconic melodies can coexist with serious modern jazz improvisation while evoking images of the California Gold Rush, paddle-wheel steamboats, and the oppressive racism that was the norm in mid-19th Century America. It is pretty much impossible to separate Foster’s music from its milieu. On the other hand, Foster’s instantly popular songs synthesized disparate African and European melodies and song forms into the first truly American music - popular or otherwise. Biskin’s keen insight into these factors is largely responsible for the success of "Early American." Unlike "Beautiful Dreamer," 2004’s hugely successful various artist compilation of Foster’s music, Early American (recorded in 2000, but not released until 2006) is not about straight-up cover versions. As Biskin puts it in his liner notes, the music on this CD represents an intertwining of Foster’s melodies with his own complementary material. Wisely, Biskin eschews adapting Foster’s melodies to his own idiosyncratic style, and rejects the idea of composing new pieces in Foster’s now-archaic style
The result is hugely entertaining, though some might find the re-contextualization of such archetypal tunes somewhat confounding. The CD opens and closes with 19th Century music box renditions of "My Old Kentucky Home" and "Old Folks At Home" - reminders that Foster’s music was enormously popular within a few years of its creation, and that his melodies are as malleable as they are memorable. Biskin’s re-creations take surprisingly few liberties - a reharmonization here, a syncopation there, and tempo changes galore. Yet, they diverge into all sorts of fascinating directions to provide Biskin and his bandmates ample room for true 21st Century improvisation. The music is devoid of long solos and full of hairpin turns and sudden changes. Favorite moments include Pete McCann’s eloquent solo over John Hollenbeck’s pointillistic percussion on "Camptown Races", the hayseed hoedown on "Oh! Susanna", McCann’s ultra-twangy banjo on "Nelly Bly", the ever-changing rhythms and churning motion of "Old Folks At Home" and "Old Black Joe", and the airy floating reharmonization of "Beautiful Dreamer". By the time you get to the funky throwdown section of "There’s a Good Time Coming", even McCann’s metalloid guitar solo seems completely appropriate. Throughout it all, Biskin’s band is tight beyond belief. Biskin, percussionist Hollenbeck, guitarist McCann, and low brass virtuoso Chris Washburne make so many impressive and inspired musical choices throughout the CD that they cannot be enumerated in the space of a single review. Biskin’s original pieces synthesize 19th Century Americana, Klezmer-like instrumentation, and generous dollops of naughty, quirky modern jazz shenanigans that mesh seamlessly with his Foster interpretations.
Biskin, his Quartet, and Strudelmedia all deserve kudos for bringing "Early American" to light after six years in the can. More than yet another tribute album, "Early American" is a colorful, vibrant, risk-taking musical adventure that brings Stephen Foster's oeuvre to life in a wholly unexpected way.