* Who: Howard Fishman Quartet

* When: 8:30 p.m. Monday

* Where: Iota Club & Cafe, Arlington

Let's propose that you might judge a band by where it has played. By that reasoning, the Howard Fishman Quartet is an eclectic outfit whose track record bodes extremely well for Iota audiences Monday.

The group's swing style, mixing pop standards with clever, contemporary originals, has become an underground New York City sensation.

It has played the Algonquin hotel's tony Oak Room and the theatrical hangout Joe's Pub, plus Pete's Candy Store in Brooklyn. The band has also held court at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre and Le Petite Journal in Paris.

Not bad, considering that founder Fishman's career began in subway stations, busking to support his theatrical ambitions. The genial front man recalls an "uninformative period as a Kerouac-toting itinerant musician who played nothing but obscure Bob Dylan songs."

Though based in New York, Fishman says he spent "several frigid weeks one winter playing on the [District's] Metro platforms and crashing on a friend's couch."

Fishman's casual group, including stalwart violinist Russell Farhang, was discovered playing entr'acte music for one of Fishman's plays. "A VIP in the audience asked if we'd like a gig at the Algonquin, filling in for a star who'd broken her leg," Fishman says.

Friends warned that their scruffy style would never fly with the cabaret crowd. "We anticipated profound failure," Fishman admits.

But a New York Times critic wrote a glowing review of opening night, and the quartet took off. Fishman put his career as a playwright on hold to go with the groove. He still hopes to complete a work-in-progress about the legendary Donner party when his schedule permits.

Try to imagine Stephane Grappelli backing Tom Waits, and you'll get an inkling of the quartet's appeal. The group has one foot firmly planted in American jazz and roots, while the other taps to a modern, sometimes eccentric, different drummer. Addition of drummer Mark McLean will make the group a quintet for Monday's show.

With release last year of "Do What I Want" on the quartet's own Monkey Farm Records, the group has three CDs but still a do-it-yourself life.

Fishman handles public relations and music sales through the band's Web site at www.howardfishman.com. Visit it for news, sound samples and CD purchases.

Operating without a record company behind them, Howard Fishman Quartet comes to Iota on its own power and own terms. Swing on by and show them you care, too.

-- Marianne Meyer

Iota Club & Cafe is at 2832 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. The band will play two sets beginning at 8:30 p.m. Call 703-522-8340 or visit www.iotaclubandcafe.com. Tickets $10 at the door with none in advance and limited to 21 and over with valid ID.

Russell Farhang, from left, Jonathan Flaugher, Howard Fishman and Erik Jekabson make up the Howard Fishman Quartet, playing jazz and swing.