Old-fashioned overnight success

Howard Fishman

by Seth Rogovoy

(NORTH ADAMS, Mass., January 7, 2004) – Howard Fishman’s big break came in storybook fashion. After a stint leading a band in New Orleans, he moved to New York City in 1997 to have another go at the theater profession he had trained for as an undergraduate at Vassar College. He kept one foot in music, however, busking in the subway.

This is where Hollywood met real life. In the subway, Fishman was discovered by someone with connections to the Algonquin Hotel’s Oak Room – one of New York City’s most prestigious cabaret venues. A few weeks later, Fishman and his band had a month-long gig at the Oak Room, for which he garnered rave reviews in the Times and the other New York press.

“I didn’t even know what the Algonquin was,” said Fishman in a phone interview earlier this week form his Brooklyn apartment. “People’s jaws dropped when I told them I got the gig. I vaguely knew about it from the Algonquin literary roundtable, but I didn’t even know they had music there.”

Fishman’s brush with overnight success paved the way back to music for the West Hartford native. Three recordings and frequent out-of-town tours later, Fishman is now getting booked into places like Mass MoCA, where he performs on Saturday night at 8 in Club B-10 as part of the Alt Cabaret series. His band includes violin, trumpet, bass and drums.

Other than the critics who gushed over him, it’s hard to know what people thought of him at the Oak Room, because Fishman is anything but your typical cabaret performer. While he did play some “standards” from the so-called Great American Songbook, his definition of that book then, as now, was much broader than is typical.

“We did a mixture of old American standards, intermingled with old blues and hillbilly music,” said Fishman, 33. “I played some banjo, some guitar, with my quartet without drums. It was kind of a big mix of American music from the late 1800s to maybe the 1950s.”

It’s precisely upon that broad swath of music – and beyond -- that Fishman has built his unique style, as heard in recent concerts at Club Helsinki and on his latest CD, “Do What I Want” (Monkey Farm). On the album, soul jazz bumps shoulders with French chansons before morphing into neo-Beat acoustic funk. In concert, Gypsy swing goes to Vienna disguised as English roots-rockers Dire Straits.

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. But while he recognizes the stylistic shifts and crossover influences in his music and approach, Fishman says it’s all quite unconscious.

“If you go back in America far enough, you see that genre was created as a marketing tool in the early recording business,” said Fishman, who studied classical violin until he was 15. “There was no such thing as blues, country and pop. They were created by record companies so record-store clerks knew where to file the albums. And then musicians began adhering to this false notion of genre that record companies had created.

“I try not to think too much about music. I was talking to an architect the other day and asked him what style of architecture he does. ‘I don’t adhere to a style,’ he said. ‘I like a lot of styles. If it looks good and feels good and right for the land and the client…’

“That’s exactly how I feel about music, and I was sorry I asked him that question. To me, the style is not important and not worth thinking about. I don’t really believe in genre. I don’t think about it anymore.

“It’s just about what excites you as a musician. If what’s being communicated is honest, the style doesn’t matter. It just sounds good or it doesn’t.”

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on January 8, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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