Dave Frishberg: In a class By Himself

FLAGSTAFF, Arizona, June 19 -- Dave Frishberg is one of the most thoughtful-but-fun jazz musicians around. Originally strictly a pianist, he added singing and songwriting to his arsenal in the '70s and has achieved cult status as a vocalist since that time. More recently, though, he's shifted the emphasis back to piano, as showcased in Dave Frishberg: By Himself (Arbors Records ARCD 19185), a 1998 release featuring a mixture of standards, lesser-known jazz compositions, and several of his own tunes.

Only four of the selections include vocals. Cornetist Dick Sudhalter, quoted in the jacket notes, says, "David and his songs have amassed such a cult following that people often forget he's one of the very best jazz pianists we have." Maybe so, but this recording should serve as a reminder, to anyone who's forgotten, of the high quality -- and the remarkable grasp of diverse styles -- that characterize Frishberg's piano artistry.

Despite what some might say about the relative merits of Frishberg's piano and vocal artistry, his most lasting and original contributions to jazz are his own songs.

Frishberg is an unusual pianist -- one with a command of stride and "traditional" style, but who doesn't waste time imitating his predecessors. Tunes like "Ain't She Sweet," "Gee Baby, Ain't I Good to You," and "How Long, How Long Blues" (the last included as part of "Kansas City Medley") pay tribute to trad jazz. Harold Arlen's lesser-known "Last Night When We Were Young" (lesser-known to yours truly, at any rate) finds Frishberg in a reflective mood and presents some of the most creative playing on the album.

Who needs a sideman, when you've got Dave?

Despite what Sudhalter and others might say as regards the relative merits of Frishberg's piano and vocal artistry, his most lasting and original contributions to the jazz art form are his songs. By Himself offers new words to one of his older compositions, "Saratoga Hunch," as well as a new rendition of another standard, "Can't Take You Nowhere." I'm really not sure why he felt it necessary to record "Nowhere" again -- it may have been at the behest of the producer. Also included is a whimsical song with lyrics by Bob Dorough, "I Could Care Less," a send-up of the clichés that make up so much of our everyday language.

The best of the vocal numbers, though, is the first one on the CD, a new piece called "I Want to Be a Sideman." A tribute to jazz musicians everywhere, it features such lyrics as these:

"I want to fill behind the vocal, double on flute, and jam on the blues;
I want to go and join the local, buy a dark suit, and start paying dues.

I want to maintain my book in neatly-numbered order;
I want to listen to Lester Young on my recorder...

Now I can cut whatever comes up, fake and transpose and won't make a fuss;
I want to set the vibes and drums up, sightread the shows and sleep on the bus...

I want to be young, I want to have fun,
I want to be a sideman."

Other highlights of the album include a Latin version of Dizzy Gillespie's "Groovin' High" and a no-vocal rendition of Frishberg's haunting "My Swan Song."

Who says they don't write 'em like they used to?

By Himself is a gem, and Dave Frishberg is a treasure. I first became acquainted with his musicianship through Ron Della Chiesa's "MusicAmerica" program on WGBH-FM. Della Chiesa played a wide variety of stuff, without regard to whether all of it would appeal to a wide audience. That's the good kind of radio show -- one that plays music you might otherwise have gone a lifetime without hearing. Frishberg falls into a category of jazz singer-songwriter outside the typical record-store-bin labeling scheme. He may feel that he's primarily a pianist -- and I can't fault him for that -- but his compositions display a special kind of creativity that give lie to the notion that the era of great songwriting is dead. We're lucky to have him.

Copyright © 2000 John J. Kafalas

Feedback?  Send in a letter to the editor, and I'll post it on-line!

Urb's previous columns can be found in the Column Archive, where you'll also find letters to the editor.

Return to the home page