Howard Fishman's creative spark
"I don't understand the concept of boredom. People say, 'I get bored.' I don't know how that happens. I've never been bored a day in my life, and things are continually inspiring to me."
This quote, from Howard Fishman, explains not just why the songwriter/guitarist delves into so many stylistically diverse musical forms, but it also suggests how those projects are always bubbling over with creative energy.
Fishman brings his Biting Fish Brass Band to the Garde Arts Center's Oasis Room tonight - and the New Orleans-style outfit is an absolutely authentic representation. A Crescent City brass band is an extremely rhythmic unit mixing gospel, Dixieland jazz and funk, and typically includes tuba, trumpets, trombones, sax, bass drum and snare.
In that sense, Biting Fish should not remotely be confused with Fishman's jazz quartet, or his Donner Party-inspired oratorio "We Are Destroyed," or his shows and recordings examining the Dylan or Hoagy Carmichael songbooks, or his string quartet interpretations of Romanian and Eastern European folk music, or ... you get the idea.
Fishman, who was born in Hartford and grew up in New York City, studied acting and directing and always assumed he'd have a career in theater. He moved to New Orleans in his early 20s, though, and the city's completely open approach to and appreciation for music of all kinds changed his focus. One of the main stimulants was that city's brass band culture - a component so insularly identified with the city that Fishman was inspired to form the Biting Fish Brass Band simply to get exposure for the form outside Louisiana. "Better Get Right" is their first album.
In conversation last weekend by phone from his Brooklyn home, Fishman was engaging, funny, and refreshingly candid in his wonder over the possibilities of art and the world at large. Here are some of his thoughts.
On why he formed a New Orleans-style brass band in New York:
"One of the reasons I put this particular band together is because, up until very recently, the Northeast hasn't been exposed to this music at all. The last time I was in New Orleans, I heard a bunch of brass bands and I said, I've got to make a band like this. New York City needs this. It's very difficult music to describe. People up here think of Sousa marches or whatever, and can't really wrap their minds around it. It has to be experienced - it has its own beats. It's not jazz and it's not classical."
One aspect of the New Orleans brass bands is a tradition of infusing contemporaneously popular music into the structure. This ranges from Louis Armstrong's Hot 5 doing Percy Venable tunes to the Rebirth Brass Band interpreting Michael Jackson. On what that means to Fishman, whose Biting Fish group tackles everything from western Louisiana Cajun songs to Wall of Voodoo's New Wave hit "Mexican Radio":
"That's one of the great things about it. Any song is fair game to funk up and New Orleans-ify. I love the idea that anything is fair game for the brass bands, and the stranger, the better. Which is why it was so fun to do 'Mexican Radio.' At first, crowds have to think about what song it is because it's so removed from the original context. Then they recognize it and just love what we're doing with it."
Last week, Fishman published a compelling piece in The Huffington Post on the spiritual quest of musical performance. What, we asked him, are the spiritual aspects of the other side of the coin, composition? Is there a difference between one of those songs that emerges fully formed and occasions where the songwriter has to work for weeks to finish and polish a tune?
"I guess ... I'm like a conduit or a receiver and once in a while the reception is particularly attuned and the song just comes through. I never sit down to write a song. The melody just comes unbidden. Sometimes it's just all there and sometimes I have to flesh it out on guitar or piano. The only real work is the lyrics. If it's a song I can come back to and continue to be engaged, it's probably worth the effort. If it actually becomes 'work' to me, it's probably not that good a song."
Howard Fishman and the Biting Fish Brass Band, 7:30 tonight, 6:30 p.m. pre-show Lite Bites eat 'n' greet, Oasis Room, Garde Arts Center, 325 State St., New London; $32; (860) 444-7373, gardearts.org.
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