Ecstatic Truth Gumbo: Howard Fishman Quartet at Hudson Opera House
Singer-songwriter-bandleader Howard Fishman knows how to rock a venue — any venue. Since 1999, his unique folk-jazz-Americana has left its mark on New Orleans street corners, Lincoln Center, Manhattan’s tony Algonquin Oak Room, the French TV show Le Petit Journal, and countless clubs and halls. On Saturday, March 2, at 8 p.m., Fishman adds the Hudson Opera House to this esteemed list. The historic landmark, built in 1855, is one of the oldest surviving theaters in the country. In addition to the myriad of sounds his quartet will offer, Fishman’s storytelling panache will certainly resonate, commingling with the ghosts of fervent orators Henry Ward Beecher and Susan B. Anthony, who raised the rafters of the Hudson Opera House in bygone days.
Fishman, whose Facebook page labels him a “Seeker of Ecstatic Truth and Self-Employed Artist,” is aiming for a similarly enlivening experience. “I take seriously my role not only as an entertainer,” he says, “but as the facilitator of an experience that has (spiritual) potential. I want to connect — with the musicians I’m performing with, with the audience, with myself. It’s what I’m after. To me, it’s a form of religion.”
To connect to Hudson audiences, Fishman will draw from his impressive catalog of ten CDs, which range from introspective singer-songwriter fare to herky-jerky funk to gypsy jazz to the American Songbook. What he’s most excited about, however, is a mini-set of material penned by his new obsession: 1950s outsider artist Connie Converse, a Mount Holyoke star student who dropped out to become a self-taught songwriter in Manhattan, was subsequently ignored, and disappeared in 1974.
“I could talk for hours about her,” Fishman says. “She wrote amazing music in total obscurity in the 50s. Her tapes were just recently discovered and put out on CD. When I first heard her songs, I said, ‘This is a hoax. There’s no way this music was written in the 50s. There’s no frame of reference for it.’ But it sounds familiar somehow. I’ve created a multimedia show about her (‘A Star Has Burnt My Eye: The Strange Case of Connie Converse’), my connection to her, why she’s important, and how I relate to her as a fellow DIY person not embraced by the mainstream. Our music doesn’t conform to terms most people use to describe music. I’m really looking forward to playing her songs.”
Fishman describes Converse’s material as, “an odd combination of American vernacular music… I can hear Hoagy Carmichael, the Carter Family, but there are also strains of art music forms and atonal stuff, and structurally all the songs are very eccentric; harmonically they’re strange but melodically they’re very simple, emotionally intimate.”
When informed he’s also describing his own music, he laughs. Yet, those same qualities — fierce individuality, embrace of varying, earthy music, damn-the-torpedoes riskiness, and underlying passion — have garnered Fishman much acclaim; The New York Times’ Stephen Holden has said, “Howard Fishman transcends time and idiom,” while illustrator Al Hirschfeld once quipped, “Best jazz I’ve heard since the 20s!” This kind of attention nets him interesting gigs, like a recent opportunity to score the obscure Buster Keaton film Frozen North with what he calls “folk punk.”
Fishman’s audiences have increased alongside the mounting accolades, drawn by his powerful commitment to showmanship and an increasingly rich repertoire of both original and sourced material. Longtime fans, befuddled by endless options in their daily lives, appreciate his “chef’s choice” approach, happy with anything he serves up, whether it’s a multi-media extravaganza, a New Orleans-style brass band, or, as is the case at Hudson Opera House, a streamlined quartet of electric guitar, violin, double bass, and trombone. Whatever this Seeker of Ecstatic Truth chooses to play, you can bet the spirit will rise from the Hudson Opera House floorboards once again, and the joint will rock. —Robert Burke Warren