Andy Biskin And 16 Tons Revisit 'Songs From The Alan Lomax Collection'

Aug 14, 2018
Originally published on August 24, 2018 10:55 am
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Early in his career, clarinetist Andy Biskin worked as an assistant to the folklorist Alan Lomax. Biskin's new album features new settings of songs drawn from Lomax's massive collection "The Folk Songs Of North America." Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says Biskin's album exposes a few layers of music history.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDY BISKIN AND 16 TONS' "LILY MUNROE")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Clarinetist Andy Biskin playing "Lily Munroe," a song Alan Lomax collected in the southern Appalachians, though the melody is English. Biskin's new CD, "Songs From The Alan Lomax Collection," includes novel arrangements of a prisoner's lament, a murder ballad, the abolitionist minstrel song "Blue Tail Fly" and "Sweet Betsy From Pike," also an old hymn adapted into a railroad song that became a 20th century kids' favorite - "She'll Be Comin' Round The Mountain."

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDY BISKIN AND 16 TONS' "SHE'LL BE COMIN' ROUND THE MOUNTAIN")

WHITEHEAD: When sophisticated musicians play traditional ditties that have only two or three chords, there's always the danger things can get a little cute. "Comin' Round The Mountain" is as close to the brink as Andy Biskin gets. His good taste pulls him back. He injects some of his own material to complicate things in a good way and has instruments pop in and out, recombining within a piece. The players get into the spirit of the material. There are echoes of congregational singing, where a leader lines out the verses and the unison responses can get a little loose.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDY BISKIN AND 16 TONS' "MUSKRAT")

WHITEHEAD: Andy Biskin's quintet called 16 Tons has an odd, lopsided instrumentation - clarinet, drums and three trumpets. Brassmen (ph) Kenny Warren, Dave Smith and John Carlson variously evoke jazz and rock horn sections, the Tijuana Brass, the field band from a very small high school or Aaron Copland night at Symphony Hall. This is "Down In The Valley."

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDY BISKIN AND 16 TONS' "DOWN IN THE VALLEY")

WHITEHEAD: Drummer Rob Garcia sometimes punctuates from a distance, and sometimes, he's the whole swinging rhythm section. He gets an assist from Andy Biskin's bass clarinet on the clapping song "Knock John Booker." Alan Lomax had collected it from African-American singer Mary McDonald in west central Alabama. But in his travels, he also heard its melody in a sea shanty and a mountain banjo tune. These songs have layers in more ways than one.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDY BISKIN AND 16 TONS' "KNOCK JOHN BOOKER")

WHITEHEAD: The archaeological strata this music digs through include the folk revival of the 1950s and '60s, which Lomax anthologies helped supply with songs. Andy Biskin's quintet plays "Tom Dooley," the 19th century murder ballad that became a 1958 hit for the folksy Kingston Trio. The folk revival also inspired a couple of jazz clarinet players. Bill Smith recorded his own collection of folk songs and modern jazz dress - according to the album cover - while Jimmy Giuffre wrote folk-flavored originals. Andy Biskin's band, 16 Tons, carries a whiff of their chamber jazz, too. The album "Songs From The Alan Lomax Collection" is homespun music with a well-rounded education.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDY BISKINS AND 16 TONS' "TOM DOOLEY")

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure. He reviewed 16 Tons' "Songs From The Alan Lomax Collection" by clarinetist Andy Biskin.

You may have noticed 2018 is shaping up to be the fourth-hottest year on record after three years of record heat. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Somini Sengupta, The New York Times' international climate reporter. We'll talk about some of the consequences of rising temperatures ranging from discomfort to drought, famine, disease, conflicts and increased migration. I hope you'll join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.