Fishman's songs take him from subways to supper club
Written by DAVID DUPONT Festival Program Editor
Tuesday, 06 September 2011 10:05
Back about 15 years ago Howard Fishman found himself broke and abandoned in Syracuse, N.Y.
His girl had left him, and the theater company he had started was defunct.
“It was a low point,” the singer-songwriter said in a recent telephone interview.
He was interested in music and found himself “more and more immersed in New Orleans culture.”
So he headed south to the Big Easy, and when he got there he “found a milk crate and started playing.”
A star was born. Well, not exactly.
“The locals told me ‘you better go home, you’ll never make it here.’”
Still Fishman hung in there, before eventually moving to New York where he moved from the subways to the Algonquin Oak Room.
He plays music that New York Times critic Stephen Holden said: “transcends time and idiom.”
Fishman’s original songs are infused with the varied and fertile strains of American music — traditional jazz, folk, country gospel, blues as well as art music ranging from Brahms to Morton Feldman.
“I call it Brooklyn New Orleans music,” he said.
He was exposed to music early and studied violin and trombone. He expected he’d drop music when he went off to Vassar College, but instead picked up the acoustic guitar.
The music he heard growing up, he said, were the sophisticated versions of the American songbook by Cole Porter, the Gershwin Brothers, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart.
At college he was exposed to older blues and jazz players doing these very same tunes. “They were gritty and raw and simplified, dumbed down harmonically, almost like folk music.”
That captured his imagination.
He admits that for awhile “I was kind of a narrow minded purist” who believed “there wasn’t any good music made after 1955.”
Then, he had a revelation. “I did a 180 and realized how stultifying that purist bent can be.”
Fishman also realized he’d never “be as good as the originals.”
So he launched into a new phase of his musical education, headed to the record store and started “to explore all the music I’d been turning my nose up at.”
By the new millennium he was playing his own songs. Songs of travels and broken hearts and characters he’s met along the way, as well as the occasional choice cover of an evergreen such as “When I Grow Too Old To Dream.”
He leads an ensemble that features a bass, either string or brass, a piano, either trumpet or trombone, and violin, often Mazz Swift, who will play the set before his at the festival. The pairing of a horn and violin fits the versatility of his music. The violin has both classical and folk overtones, while the horn adds a brassy New Orleans jazz vibe. That blend creates just the right frame for his genre-bending style.