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Band Jazz Americana


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New York, New York, USA

New York, New York, USA


New York, New York, USA

New York, New York, USA


New York, New York, USA

New York, New York, USA

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By Don Heckman

Pop music and jazz have a special fondness for genre labeling. "Rock," "country," "funk," "rap," "bebop," "fusion" and on and on — the labels are endless. And, while they may offer handy categories for the bins in retail stores, they don't necessarily define an individual artist.

Howard Fishman, who performed Thursday at Lunaria, sings with a sound reminiscent of Lou Reed, mixing sardonic accents with a vulnerable subtext. His guitar playing ranges from a country twang to a strumming drive recalling Freddie Green's work with the Count Basie rhythm section. Add to that his songs, with their juxtaposition of poignant wistfulness and dark emotional intensity, toss in arrangements that allow wide open spaces for jazz-driven improvisations, and you have a performer who defies idiom.

Fishman is still relatively unknown, despite complimentary reviews from tastemaker publications, and his one-night gig at Lunaria was his first Los Angeles appearance. At a time when performers in virtually every genre are trying to stretch their stylistic boundaries, Fishman refuses to acknowledge that boundaries exist.

He offered "Sweet Lorraine" in a light-hearted swing groove. His own tune, "Mary Ann," was a gentle love song in '70s singer-songwriter style, enlivened by a Miles Davis-tinged trumpet solo, while Tom Waits' "All the World Is Green" added a darker element to the mix.

Fishman's songs were framed by the superb playing of his associates — trumpeter Kevin Louis, violinist Sam Bardfeld, bassist Jim Whitney — with their impeccable improvisations and supportive ensemble passages providing the perfect setting for a performer who, like Norah Jones, is positing a music that happily transcends labeling.
- Los Angeles Times

It’s a Friday night at New York’s Mercury Lounge, and the Howard Fishman Quartet is playing to a full house. Fishman, seated with a small, beat-up acoustic guitar, approaches the mic to sing. Violinist Russell Farhang and
trumpeter Erik Jekabson weave tasteful, improvised fills around the
melancholy vocals, while double bassist Jonathan Flaugher locks in with Fishman’s rhythm guitar to create an irresistible, foot-tapping pulse.
Verses are separated by concise yet inspired solos that burst with
jazz-informed virtuosity but never forsake the narrative of the song. The
crowd is eating it up. But between songs the mood is repeatedly spoiled by a
husky, twenty-something man, standing near the stage and getting a bit
rowdy. Mistaking the show for a tongue-in-cheek hillbilly revue, he
supplements his applause with sarcastic requests of his favorite Johnny Cash
songs ("Ring of Fire!" "Boy Named Sue!") and more often than not a loud
The Howard Fishman Quartet often has had to contend with being
misunderstood, not only by the occasional rogue audience member but by
critics as well. To some, four young guys from the Northeast playing music
with country overtones can only be a put-on. But the most salient
characteristic of the group’s act is that it isn’t an "act" at all. Their
rustic yet elegant music suggests traces of western swing, early jazz,
vintage folk, and blues, yet it isn’t exactly any of these things. Rather,
it is an unforced marriage of songwriting and improvisation, borrowing and
stealing from a variety of antique idioms and using them to create something
entirely new. This is no irony-drenched attempt to amuse the post-everything
New York club dweller.
The band’s "bag" is sincere, and purely a labor of love. Without the
benefit of a record contract or a manager ("no help from The Man," Fishman
jokes), they’ve secured countless gigs at the hippest venues in New York and
throughout the Northeast. Last May they played a month’s worth of
engagements in Paris. In February 2001 they began a stint of four packed
Sunday nights at Joe’s Pub, a chi-chi nightspot adjacent to (and owned by)
the Joseph Papp Public Theater. And every Monday in March they held court at
the Jazz Standard, one of New York’s most prestigious jazz clubs. "Howard’s
quartet is ever-expanding and totally surprising," says Bonnie Metzger,
Associate Producer at the Public Theater.
This February the group released its second CD, I Like You a Lot, on its
own Monkey Farm label. Most of the songs are Fishman’s own, including the
New Orleans stomp "Hey Little Girl," the heartbroken, lilting tale "Another
Night," the semi-maniacal "Dirty" and "Molly’s Pies," and the Hot Club-style
instrumental "It Won’t Be Long." Interestingly, the two non-originals occupy
opposite ends of the band’s creative spectrum. "I Surrender, Dear" is the
kind of songbook standard they like to play uptown at the Algonquin Hotel
and Sardi’s, two of their regular society gigs. In contrast, "Oh, Death," an
experimental reworking of an old American folk song, features the band in
its avant-garde mode, venturing into territory they often explore while
playing weekly at Pete’s Candy Store, a hangout in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Using the harmonic drone of the song as a basis for free improvisation,
Fishman (on banjo) and crew highlight their ability to fashion something
radically new from the old. "I listen to Ornette Coleman and late Coltrane,"
Fishman offers, "and some of that comes out when we play." (Coincidentally,
Ralph Stanley’s version of "Oh, Death" appears on the soundtrack of the
latest Coen Brothers film, O Brother, Where Art Thou?)
Fishman, a 30-year-old native of West Hartford, Connecticut (who attended
high school with Brad Mehldau), also names such influences as Gary Davis,
Mississippi John Hurt, Riley Puckett, Eddie Lang, Doc Watson, Elmer Snowden,
Lonnie Johnson, Jack Teagarden, and Jimmie Rodgers. "I always liked music
that was between the lines, that didn’t fit into categories," he says.
"Lately I’ve been listening mostly to classical music, and also a lot of
Thelonious Monk." Fishman’s theater background is also vital to
understanding what makes him tick as a musician. As a teenager he developed
what he calls an "obsession" with the plays of Eugene O’Neill, and he went
on to study theater in college. For a time he ran his own theater company in
upstate New York, before moving to New Orleans for several years to immerse
himself that city’s musical heritage. "When we perform now," Fishman
explains, "I want it to be like theater in the sense that the audience is
involved. We try to create a feeling of a shared experience between us and
our listeners. If that’s not happening, the show’s not going well."
Fishman is in the midst of planning a collaboration with the Joseph Papp
Public Theater. The only detail he’ll agree to mention i - DOWNBEAT

Howard Fishman has the creative intuition of a songwriter and the intellectual disposition of a musicologist. The Connecticut native spent several years in New Orleans, taking in the city’s kaleidoscopic musical heritage and developing what would become his signature style. Upon relocating to New York in 1997, he set about forming the Howard Fishman Quartet. The name may suggest a jazz group, and its players are indeed well versed in the rhythms and harmonies of jazz, from swing to bebop and beyond. But Fishman’s hyper-quirky, genre-confounding songs are equally informed by obscure folk, country, blues, Texas swing, Hot Club swing, standards, and what is known simply as "old-time music." In his hillbilly cap, playing a small, beat-up Gibson acoustic and singing in a plain, disarmingly sincere style, Fishman cultivates what might be called an anti-image. During the first couple of numbers, he and his players are illuminated by a single exposed bulb dangling from a wire.
Fishman’s main thrust is songs, but improvisation is an integral part of his group’s sound. He’ll often sing a verse or two and then yield the floor to violinist Russell Farhang, trumpeter Erik Jekabson, and bassist Jonathan Flaugher (there’s no drummer) for a jazz-style rotation of solos. Farhang blends classical, jazz, and country fiddle influences. Jekabson combines the brass theatrics of dixieland with a post-bop sensibility that recalls Kenny Dorham. Flaugher anchors the bottom while Fishman chugs away with his involved rhythm guitar parts. "Retro" doesn’t quite capture it: A lot of Fishman’s stuff is downright antique, in the best sense of the word. Melancholy country ballads, blues stomps, gypsy waltzes, and old chestnuts like "When I Grow Too Old to Dream": All of this rolls off Fishman’s tongue, and through the group’s veins, and it never sounds forced or phony. Fishman’s lyrical delivery can be sardonic, or crazed, or sad to the point of numbness, and the band always tailors its playing to the song’s narrative direction.
There’s an even more interesting side to the Howard Fishman Quartet, however. Switching to banjo, Fishman introduces the group’s rendition of an old "murder ballad," a near-maniacal tale about "pretty Polly" that ends with the poor girl’s death. Based on a one-note drone, its lyrical structure strongly tinged with the blues, the song is an example of the aforementioned "old-time music," passed down through the oral traditions of American mountain folk. In the hands of Fishman and crew it becomes an extended improvisation, often venturing into territory best described as free jazz. Flaugher wigs out in the manner of Richard Davis, Fishman bangs on the banjo like a drum, and Jekabson and Farhang react accordingly. "Old-time" music? Perhaps, but this is also new improvised music. Fishman reaches deep into the history of American song, puts what he finds in a contemporary blender, and comes up with something entirely his own.
By David Adler





In true New York-story fashion, Howard Fishman Quartet went overnight from performing on subway platforms to delighting packed audiences in some of New York City's toniest rooms (The Algonquin Oak Room, Sardi's) with a unique style that explored the roots of American popular music in a fresh and new way. HFQ has garnered raves from the likes of The New York Times, The New Yorker, Le Monde, The International Herald Tribune, and The Village Voice, & was honored with Backstage Magazine's award for Outstanding Musical Group. HFQ has dazzled critics and audiences alike with its compelling blend of sincerity, virtuosity and complete lack of irony and nostalgia. Whether playing obscure old pop, classic standards, blues, jazz, country, or its own uncataegorizable originals, HFQ brands everything with its unique stamp. The music is fun, lively, intimate and full of emotion.