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Jazz’s Wizard of Wit—and Much More—Dave Frishberg

Press photo from Dave

Pianist, singer and songwriter Dave Frishberg, something of a cracked lovechild of Stephen Sondheim and Woody Allen's, is a too-little known miracle. The writer of hip ditties like "Peel Me a Grape" is also much more.

I’ve lamented before about the lack of humor and lightness in jazz (see "A Laughing Dilemma, Revealed"). How can it be that this music, based in puckish, playful improvisation, is so often somber or self-important?

On days when you might want your jazz with some wit and some delight, one sure solution is the music of pianist, songwriter and singer Dave Frishberg. Frishberg is most famous as the composer of a handful of incredibly funny and clever songs, many made famous first by singer Blossom Dearie.

“I’m Hip” is a monologue by a deluded beat-era hipster who thinks he's utterly cool because “I even call my girlfriend ‘Man’”, set to a series of chord changes so tricky that the song is nearly unsingable. “Peel Me a Grape”, more recently done to sultry extreme by Diana Krall, is written in the voice of a woman who is perfectly up-front about the fact that she's using her man for luxury and little more (“Don’t outthink me—just mink me”). And “My Attorney Bernie” is a celebration of an unscrupulous lawyer: “Thanks to you, my attorney Bernie / Thanks to you I’m considered well to do / Sure, I made out like a bandit exactly like you planned it / But like Murray, my accountant, told me yesterday—I owe it all to you”.

And there are plenty more where those came from: “Blizzard of Lies” (“It's strictly fresh today / Service with a smile / I'll love you darling 'till I die / We'll keep your name on file”), “Let’s Eat Home” (“I like to dine in a Florentine palazzo / You can laugh and call me fatso”), or “A Little Taste” (“Why not spare myself a little pain? / It wouldn’t hurt / Why lock my appetite out in the rain? / Without a shirt”). Simply put, Frishberg is the most agile and clever jazz lyricist of the last 30 or 40 years, capable of the dashing wordplay of a man who seems like the cracked lovechild of Stephen Sondheim and Woody Allen.

Jazz’s Woody Allen

Indeed, as a solo performer and singer, the Frishberg-Woody comparison seems utterly on target. Frishberg’s appearance and age are similar to Allen’s. Both come off as spectacled nebbishes, perhaps—balding guys with a facility for smart wordplay and a weakness for New York City. Take a listen to Frishberg’s brilliant “Do You Miss New York” written from the point of view of someone who fled Gotham for the west coast (“Do you miss New York—the anger the action? Does this laidback lifestyle lack a certain satisfaction?”), and just try not to think of Allen’s take of Los Angeles from Annie Hall, a movie that Frishberg references in the song’s last verse.

As a singer, Frishberg is remarkably Allen-esque. Which is to say that he's both excellent and completely idiosyncratic. Just as it’s hard to see Allen as an actor in a film that he has not written or any other actor playing the “Woody role” in an Allen film, Frishberg seems like the perfect singer for his own material (and no other). Take his version of “Slappin’ the Cakes on Me”, sung by a narrator who is an inept Don Juan being approached by a slyly seductive lady. “I was mute, I was mum / I was trying not to look too dumb / I said ‘I certainly hope you won’t misconstrue / Perhaps we could have a little drink or two?’ / I said, ‘What’s your pleasure?’ She said, ‘Guys like you.’”

As he sings these lines, Frishberg’s voices is nasal and puckish—boasting a sound that undercuts objection because it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Frishberg twists just the right words, winking through his own lyrics at you. He knows that he’s mainly a songwriter and that other singers might serve the melodies better—but he seems to embody these funny songs like no one else could. There’s a reason that Blossom Dearie’s “Peel Me a Grape” seems more authentic than Diana Krall’s: Dearie is playful in her impish manipulation while Krall just smolders. Frishberg’s persona is more on the impish side—knowingly clever in an almost post-modern way.

But if that were all of Frishberg, a bunch of funny, impish songs, then I wouldn’t find myself returning to his work as often as I do. In fact, Frishberg is a musician and composer who covers the full range of moods and emotional keys. As a pianist, he's one of a kind—straddling an amazing two-handed technique that starts with stride roots but fully absorbs bebop harmonies and modern rhythms. And as a writer of complex ballads and mood pieces, he's a composer who goes far beyond yucks.

Frishberg, Master Pianist

Without question, Frishberg is scandalously overlooked as a straight-up jazz piano player. He started playing and recording prominently as a sideman for Carmen McCrae, Gene Krupa, Bud Freeman, Al Cohn and Zoot Simms, Jimmy Rushing, and others in the late '50s and early '60s. Indeed, his first vocal performances on record date only to 1968, when he made a record for Creed Taylor’s CTI that is a little-known, over-produced mess.

Arguably, Frishberg’s center is really as a player. If you listen to his solo piano Billy Strayhorn medley from 1989’s Let’s Eat Home, it’s plain how formidable he is as two-handed player. He boasts an inventive left hand that is not so much heavy as it is mobile. He’s constantly changing what it's up to: maybe walking like a bass, then strumming like a guitar, then dodging about like a clever dance partner. At times he locks his hands together like Erroll Garner, but more often they seem to be in a stride-y conversation with each other, syncopations on both sides. If Frishberg’s right hand plays melody and improvises much like a bright-toned trumpet, then his “accompanying” left hand has no trouble grabbing attention—rumbling a bass note or hop-scotching from thump to caressed chord.

On Ellington’s “The Mooche” from the same recording, Frishberg revels in the dissonances, placing plenty of Thelonious Monk in his Duke, but then slapping at the keys in other places, sort of like a hipper, more pliant Dave Brubeck. When the chips are down, Frishberg plays with a wonderful certainty. He's never just jamming on the tune, but rather, playing a set arrangement that has compositional integrity.

And this is why he’s a great accompanist—of himself or others. He plays behind the late vocalist Pam Bricker on her 1994 Lookin’ Good, a disc of all Frishberg tunes. The “Peel Me a Grape” that he fashions there for Bricker sounds like no other, with very specific “orchestrations” that transform the performance into something more than just a one reading of a “song”. On the same disc, their duet on “Saratoga Hunch” and a trio take on “My Swan Song” are similarly sparkling with clever set rhythms and thought-out lines. In all of his playing, Frishberg is truly a composer as much as a player—a jazz ideal.

The “Serious” Composer

For me, however, the most impressive and important facet of Frishberg’s talent is in his heartfelt ballads and “serious” songs, another large body of work that resembles the best output of Tin Pan Alley but with a more modern, personal edge. These songs are, simply, among the best written in any recent era. Way too few people know them.

“Sweet Kentucky Ham” is about the experience of being on the road and missing home. It starts like this:

It's 6 P.M., supper time in South Bend, Indiana

And you figure what the hell you can eat in your motel

So you order up room service on the phone

And you watch the local news and eat alone

You've gotta take what little pleasures you can find

When you got sweet Kentucky ham on your mind, on your mind

Nothin' but sweet Kentucky ham on your mind

The narrator travels around some, but it’s the same story wherever he is. It always comes back to a question of “what you’ve left behind”. The song’s bridge is no less powerful than a realization of likely betrayal, but with a question mark left on the end:

And you feel like you're forever on the phone

Half past 10, let it ring

Dial again, same damn thing

And you're really getting hungry for some talk

Grab a shower, take a walk

This beautiful, heart-breaking song has often been performed by no less a singer than Rosemary Clooney. But the best-ever version is by Frishberg himself, backed by a trio, from his early '80s records for Omnisound Records. Clooney lovingly sings it, but Frishberg brings both a sadness and a sly wink to it. When he sings “You feel you want to quit when you’re behind”, that last syllable gets a weird rasp from his voice, as if he were just about to cry and then can’t.

“Our Love Rolls On” is another mature Frishberg classic. Melancholy and hopeful both, this song is that rare love song for adults.

The clouds hang low and the rains do fall

Everybody sings a little blues after all, but our loves rolls on

The skies grow dark and the winds to blow

Counting on tomorrow is at best touch and go

But our love rolls on, our love rolls on

Bricker may sing this song with more pliancy and beauty, but do you really want this kind of song to be so pretty? Frishberg sings it on the Omnisound set with the tone of an underdog—exactly the guy who can say of his love “we’ll make it over the hill”, because this is a voice of someone who has faced plenty of obstacles. (The two trio records for Omnisound are now available on one compact disc from Concord records, Dave Frishberg, Classics and this is—bar none—the best Frishberg record you can buy: 17 genuinely classic songs, including most that are discussed here.)

The finest and most sublime Frishberg song, however, is his lyric for the Johnny Mandel tune “You Are There”, a long-form melody that seems to curl around like a serpentine saxophone phrase but that Dave’s lyrics bring right back to earth.

In the evening when the kettle’s on for tea

An old familiar feeling settles over me

And it’s your face I see, and I believe that you are there

In a garden, when I stop to touch a rose

And feel the petals soft and sweet against my nose

I smile and I suppose that somehow, maybe you are there

When I’m dreaming and I find myself awake without a warning

And I rub my eyes and fantasize

And all at once I realize it’s morning

And my fantasy is fading like a distant star at dawn

My dearest dream is gone

I often think there’s just one thing to do—pretend the dream was true

And tell myself that you are there

Artist: Dave Frishberg

Album: Classics

Label: Concord

US Release Date: 1991-05-31

UK Release Date: 1991-05-31

Image:’s writing has everything you could want in a short story, much less a song—telling detail, a sense of action or plot, a moment of truth, and most particularly a specific voice that is speaking just to you. All his songs have a voice and not necessarily his: a wistful road warrior, a manipulative seductress, a hapless Don Juan.

In “You Are There”, the voice is more pained and more hopeful than usual. It i's a story sung by someone who has lost their love, of course, but it seems like the loss may be more than mere romantic disappointment. This is a song, I would suggest, that lends itself more than almost any other to being about real loss—the most adult, serious subject of them all—death. And the narrator’s hope at the end, his decision to “pretend the dream was true” seems like a tiny, tender miracle.

But that is the art of Dave Frishberg—a tender miracle. He's a legitimately fine jazz pianist, a stand-up comedian with a Cole Porter sense for lyrics, an affecting singer of his own quirky material... and perhaps the best songwriter we have today.

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