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Jewish Journal

Jazzman Frishberg charts own tuneful territory

Web extra video: Dave Frishberg sings the part of 'Mr. Penis'

by Kirk Silsbee

August 13, 2008 | 3:16 am

One of the great joys of L.A. jazz, from the mid-1970s to the mid-'80s, was the blossoming of jazz pianist Dave Frishberg into a singer-songwriter of quirky, yet warmly satisfying, material. His tunes navigated a pathway that sidestepped melodramatic cabaret material on one hand and self-absorbed pop music on the other. Frishberg created a growing catalog of songs that took a jaundiced view of the era and had stylistic ties to earlier masters like Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer. His unlikely ascendance was one of the most delightful jazz developments of that period.

His songs have a Midwestern straightforwardness; he's a St. Paul native. They are nostalgic and often ache for a bygone simplicity. One of Frishberg's earliest successes was a passionate bossa, brilliant in its simplicity. The lyrics consist solely of names of forgotten baseball players: "Heeney Majeski, Johnny Gee, Eddie Joost, Johnny Pesky, Thornton Lee, Danny Gardello, Van Lingle Mungo...."

Frishberg, who appears Wednesday at Jeannine Frank's Parlor Performances series, has long been a Portland resident whose yearly visits are few. He has an exquisite sense of ennui, as in the paean to loneliness on the road, "Sweet Kentucky Ham": "It's one a.m. They're serving up last call in Cincinnati. But it's still a nighttime town if you know your way around, and despite yourself find you're wide awake, and you're staring at your scrambled eggs and steak...."

He's gently skewered contemporary foibles in songs like "Quality Time," "Let's Eat Home" and "My Attorney Bernie": "He's got Dodger season boxes and an office full of foxes, it's amazing all the different things your average guy might need a lawyer for."

Frishberg's songs are jazz-informed, yet modeled on pre-rock 'n' roll pop standards, written by supreme tunesmiths like Alec Wilder and Frank Loesser. While working as a pianist in New York, Frishberg struggled to find his voice as a songwriter, while trying to find a place in the market for himself.

Speaking from his home in Portland, Frishberg said, "When I started, I wanted to write songs that would be recorded; I wanted to be part of that world. But I couldn't really figure the market out.

"Popular music changed with rock music and I didn't want any part of that; that was for kids. Then the folk music took over and that was amateurish. But I rediscovered a place for myself in popular music when Brazilian music came in. Those bossa nova songs were so beautiful and graceful. That music showed me there was still a place for beautiful songs."

His break came in '71, and it brought him west.

"I'd lived in New York for 15 years. I was getting divorced and I was ready for something new. I had begun writing a couple of years earlier -- with no success at all. A friend of mine invited me to come to L.A. and write for a TV show he was producing, 'The Funny Side.' Nothing I'd written was notable up to that point but I came to L.A. as a songwriter. They wanted a production number on the topic of the week: newspapers or leisure or something like that. I was pleased to learn I could do such a thing. The discipline was good for me and the deadlines were murder. What I did was known as 'special material,' which was on its way out at the time."

The show was short-lived, but Frishberg found himself transplanted into the L.A. jazz community. He played in trumpeter Bill Berry's Big Band. "That was the best Ellington tribute band around," Frishberg asserted, "because everybody on the band was an Ellington fan and really knew how the music was supposed to sound."

Another trumpeter, Jack Sheldon, not only employed Frishberg as a pianist, but also jump-started his career as a solo performer. "I probably played a hundred nights with Jack," Frishberg said. "He was very generous about giving me the spotlight. At rehearsals I would sing a few things I wrote, not expecting anything. Then on the bandstand, Jack would suddenly say, 'Dave Frishberg's going to sing one of his songs....' I was terrified."

There's a long tradition in jazz of instrumentalists who sing, stretching back at least as far as Louis Armstrong. Frishberg is certainly no polished vocalist, but like Bob Dylan, his phrasing and rhythm are absolutely the best for his own songs.

"I started singing because I had to make demos of my songs and I couldn't find singers to sing them the right way. I didn't like the way other people sang my songs. I found that I had to write for my own vocal range," he said.

For stellar interpretations of Frishberg songs, refer to Rosemary Clooney's "Sweet Kentucky Ham" and Sue Raney's rendition of the love ballad, "You Are There."

His album "Quality Time" (Sterling, 1994) saw Frishberg offer political commentary in the song, "My Country Used To Be": "My country used to be famous for quality, we led the way. Now we buy overseas. Then beg the Japanese, to buy some products, please, made in U.S.A...."

Reverting to type, Frishberg acts as accompanist to vocalist Rebecca Kilgore on their new collaborative album, "Why Fight The Feeling?" (Arbors). It's a collection of songs by Frank Loesser, whom Frishberg sees as "the first songwriter I wanted to emulate." It's easy to consider the casual grace of a Loesser song like "I Believe in You" and see an antecedent for Frishberg's "I Can't Take You Nowhere."

So what's Frishberg working on these days? "I'm employed, so to speak, at work on a musical. It's called 'Vitriol and Violets: Tales from the Algonquin Round Table.' It's all very literary, of course, and it's a big challenge, trying to imagine what Dorothy Parker or Alexander Woolcott were thinking. I'm back to writing 'special material' and it requires that I get into character. It's hard for me to think of what to write about on my own, until someone gives me an assignment and a deadline. And a check, of course."

Dave Frishberg will perform Aug. 27 at 6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. as part of the Parlor Performances series at Steinway Hall at Fields Piano, 12121 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. For more information, call (310) 4713979 or email Jeannine@FrankEntertainment.com



It's the 1950's -- and strait-laced Everdale University is about to go "coed". In order to prepare it's student body for the onslaught of "females" on campus, they present this hard-hitting educational film. Paul Reubens (a.k.a. Pee Wee Herman) stars as Wally Bile the "wrong-way" role model with Patrick MacNee (The Avengers) as Science Professor, Dr. Bloom. Dr. Bloom explains the vital "do's and don'ts" on dating women, and the all-important "warning signs" and "danger signals" to look out for when close-encountering the opposite sex. His lecture to Wally on the evils of "self-manipulation" is not to be missed. Animated Mr. Penis "instructer" sung by jazz great Dave Frishberg) Written & Directed by David Wechter. {--Tracker Pixel for Entry--}

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