New Orleans jazz is mostly horrible. Tootling cacophony, trapped at the dawn of a previous century, its fake jollity and oppressive, pedagogical subtext (Respect the history! Revere the tradition!) are pretty much the antithesis of everything good about jazz. The music of clarinetist Andy Biskin‘s quartet Ibid has certain sonorities and rhythms in common with New Orleans jazz, but it definitely doesn’t suck. In addition to Biskin, the group features cornet player Kirk Knuffke, trombonist Brian Drye, and drummer Jeff Davis. No bassist, no pianist. This gives the music a lightness, and a dancing feel, that’s quite infectious, particularly live.
Ibid recently celebrated the release of their debut CD, Act Necessary (buy it from Amazon), at New York’s Cornelia Street Café, a long underground tunnel of a room that’s become home base for a broad cross-section of the New York jazz scene in recent years. During a roughly hour-long set, they performed seven of the album’s 10 cuts, with Biskin providing charmingly dorky commentary in between. He’s a tall, skinny guy with the demeanor and speech patterns of a likable undergraduate professor; he’s also the only member of his band not sporting both a beard and glasses. Onstage, he’s flanked by Drye and Knuffke, who look enough alike that twice before the performance began, the former was mistaken for the latter. Davis was shoehorned behind the three men on the Café’s tiny stage, hunched over his kit like a father sitting at his child’s desk on Parent-Teacher Night at school.
Produced with impeccable clarity, Act Necessary is a mostly lighthearted album. The front-line instruments lope and skitter around each other, with Davis’s drums providing a frequently almost martial cadence to keep them moving forward. Biskin’s clarinet playing is clean and largely free of piercing high notes (except for the climax of “Just Like Me”), and he stays away from kitschy klezmer-isms, which is nice. Knuffke’s cornet has a puffing, human sound that allows him to fit into just about any circumstance; with Ibid, he’s the most robust soloist, frequently heading into boppier territory than Biskin or Drye. The trombonist, for his part, doesn’t solo as often as the other two, because he’s frequently called upon to serve as the closest thing they’ve got to a bassist, emitting long tones or farting low notes (particularly on the polka-ish “Balderdash”), but when he does rip it up, he does so with great vigor and joy.
Biskin’s compositions are complex, moving through elaborate sequences that require each player to weave around the other two, but most still seem built with the intention of inspiring dancing, or at least foot-tapping and head-nodding, from the listener. There are a couple of weird outliers, though. “The Titans” begins with long harmonized notes from Knuffke and Drye, but when Davis and Biskin come in, it becomes a kind of marching-band parade jazz, the kind of strut-around-the-living-room thing that would put a huge grin on a little kid’s face. “Page 17,” meanwhile, is a multi-part composition that sounds like a Raymond Scott re-orchestration of the music from Charles Mingus‘s “The Clown,” minus Jean Shepherd‘s hilariously bleak narration. This is an album that puts its contributors’ virtuosic technique to good use, aiming to entertain rather than impress.