Howard Fishman Quartet: The sultans of swing
by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., June 30, 2003) – When a very young, virtually untested singer emerges from a thriving musical community and sells 14 million albums, it’s worth taking a closer look around her to see what influences she might have picked up from her fellow musicians.
Norah Jones didn’t develop in a vacuum. Brooklyn right now is a hotbed of creative musicians who, like Jones to some extent, use the tools of a jazz musician to play music far beyond the limitations of what is usually meant by the term jazz.
Howard Fishman has been working this stream for nearly a decade, mostly channeling pre-rock American pop with some European influences, writing original songs in those styles and performing them as a rock singer-songwriter leading an improvising jazz ensemble.
Fishman brought the delirious result of this mixing and matching of styles and approaches to Club Helsinki on Sunday night with his quartet, which, adding to the delirium, was actually a quintet.
In his deadpan vocal approach, his facile wordplay, and his inerrant rhythmic pulse, Fishman could have been alternative pop star Beck a half century ago. Like Beck, Fishman is functioning on some level as a clever postmodernist, recombining and juxtaposing unrelated musical elements in recognizable but new and surprising ways. But also like Beck, Fishman never lets the intellectual underpinnings of his experiment get in the way of the utmost value: that’s entertainment.
And entertain he did an enthusiastic crowd for two sets, the first played mostly as an acoustic quartet, and the second with the addition of a drummer and with Fishman trading in his acoustic guitar for a hollow-body electric.
The material ranged from the nourish swing-jazz of “Night After Night,” in which Fishman sang in his whispery rasp, halfway between Leonard Cohen and Mark Knopfler. As on most songs, Fishman traded a few vocal verses with the instrumentalists, each of whom were genuine jazz improvisers adept at bebop, swing and ethnic styles. Fishman himself was an adept guitarist, making the most of his seemingly self-taught style, adapting the limitations of rock guitar technique to the melodic and percussive requirements of jazz playing.
Sitting in for the group’s regular trumpeter, Greg Glassman did a terrific job lending mariachi notes to “Please Come Home.” Bassist John Flaugher stood out on the John Lee Hooker-style blues boogie, “I’m a Dirty Dog,” and extended the run of some of Fishman’s twangy guitar lines on a honky-tonk number. Fiddler Russell Farhang answered Fishman’s Django Reinhardt-inspired strumming on a rendition of Harold Arlen’s “Paper Moon” with some Stephane Grappelli-style swing-jazz, and added some authentic touches the Eastern Europe-meets-Vienna of “Gypsy Waltz.”
One of Fishman’s best songs of the night was called “In Another Life.” In another life, his band would be renowned throughout the land as the Sultans of Swing.
[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on July 1, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]
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