Don Friedman: Waltz for Debby

Don Friedman
Waltz for Debby

Ouch! Worse than this label’s Winton (sic!) Marsalis in the notes to another of its releases is this one’s omission of the last letter of Attila Zollar’s name in the flier. The Hungarian guitarist, a former partner of Don Friedman, is no longer with us; and he was never so famous as to excuse getting his name wrong. The booklet’s nicely produced, and though the notes are plainly not the work of a native speaker of English the cross-referencing to performances of some tunes on other CDs on other labels is instructive as well as honest. When a pianist at this level of intelligent accomplishment comes back to certain titles in different recordings not that many years apart, it’s not going to be because he doesn’t know any more. Usually it signals recognition that there was more to be said.

Back to the notes and the flier, and the point that 441 have their priorities right, with the music. Fluent, perfectly idiomatic English can — like flawless packaging — bury more than it says. One reviewer quoted needs telling that you can’t “exude hubris” any more than a lump of coal can exude black. Hubris is a characteristic of a performance, a moral value manifest in the act. Hubris is flying too near the sun so that the wax holding together your wings melts and you plummet, goodbye. No wax was involved on so recent a recording as this, and Don Friedman has here for wings the wonder that is Lewis Nash and the miracle of George Mraz on bass. “Brio” was probably what the reviewer had in mind, and he was thus far right.

Nobody pretends that Don Friedman is one of the major original voices, but he’s a gigantic melodist. His lines would be beautifully singable — if anybody had the breath that would be needed to sustain the continuous line he continues to maintain. Sometimes I gasp, wondering when he’s going to stop to breathe. At times he pretends to. He can make things sound so simple; his music can be deeply happy for longer stretches than most. Where the standard history of modern jazz piano will tell you that work formerly done by the left hand was taken over by the bass player, who liberated melodic playing, here Messrs. Mraz and Nash are the liberators of two hands. Friedman’s not “two-fisted” (a hackneyed phrase Humphrey Lyttelton has insisted belongs strictly to Jerry Lee Lewis). His mitts complement each other, overlap and share the labour of linear swing with stamina. Wholehearted, at ease, fluent: I’d like to see how many such tags I could think of that would fit this recording, then find out how many of them are on any of those lists to be clicked on: how would you describe this music?

Why’s this disc called what it’s called? I’d guess Friedman is fond of the tune, and maybe it’s fun to send up silly expectations — to kid people on who might fancy this could be a directly intended po-face tribute to the late Bill Evans. It would have been Hubris to have called this CD Waltz for Debby and made some attempt to emulate Evans. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it’s not the most intelligent way to pay tribute. Imitation might have nothing to do with what you feel about whoever you want to pay tribute to. What you learned or received from Evans might be something which enables you to make music in many respects very different from his. When Eddie Gomez took over from Scott LaFaro after the latter’s untimely death, he played like himself within a relationship already established by LaFaro’s contribution as the basis of that trio. Recording with Friedman and Nash in a trio which never existed before, George Mraz is probably as distinctive a shaping figure as young LaFaro. He does things here he did with Roland Hanna (that great pianist died about a year ago) and with the very different Friedman he establishes a relationship more of energetic interaction than blanding.

Mraz bounds in at the start, playing such a fast succession of accents he pretty well has a line to himself. Nash switches variously between maintaining general support and reinforcing one then the other of his mates. “I Concentrate on You” finds the bassist, while not ceasing to prompt and support, conjuring the sort of melodic lines and harmonic implications singers and horn soloists dream of — from pianists. The tempo ups, he prods, the dynamics alter and he starts to sing an encyclopaedia of his craft.

The title track is something of a celebration, extroverted without losing tenderness, with playfully surprising solo entries — suddenly it’s Mraz, and nearly as unexpectedly Friedman. This is thanksgiving rather than elegy.

Chick Corea’s tune “Bud Powell” is more delight, without clichés but a lot of ideas which playfully hint at bop clichés. Nash’s long drum breaks make plain quite how much fun he’s having at this fast medium tempo. “You Must Believe in Spring” is quiet, shading into poignancy, Mraz shadowing Friedman, Friedman shadowing the melancholy slow swing of the bassist, who is capable of fingerwork so flowingly lyrical he maybe needs no bow. “Blues in a Hurry” was, it’s said, conceived in a hurry when the programme seemed to need something of the sort. It’s actually more like Bud Powell himself than the tune which bears his name, with its dark racing minor mood. “The Shadow of Your Smile” demonstrates nothing short of a unity of imagination in the group.

Mraz was a refugee from Czechoslovakia when jazz was illegal in that country, and jazz is probably a fairer symbol of freedom in Prague than the rock music which is maybe quite an accurate symbol of the fact of postcommunism. He has never played better than on Friedman’s stunning composition “Flamands”, which he opens with resonant phrasing like the great bassist he is, solo over Nash’s light drumming. This is a real peak, and the trio shows itself capable of a kind of music exemplified when Duke Ellington, Max Roach, and Charles Mingus got into a studio together. Seldom does one encounter so ringingly distinctive a theme affording such opportunities for development, thematic fragments coming back in with the bass to maintain a compositional unity throughout. And nothing sounds over-rehearsed; Friedman even more than the others always sounds spontaneous.

Another moan: “Old Folks” was composed by Willard Robison, not Robinson. There’s also the flier citation of a supercollossal reviewer howler: Don Friedman is “… capable of inspiring Lee Konitz — which is about the highest compliment one can give to a player in the twilight days of this our [sic!] wonderous jazz century.” Perhaps Lee Konitz hasn’t been inspired by quite as many people as he has inspired, but quite a few people have inspired him. Don Friedman is certainly an inspiration; he’s that sort of ever lively player; and something inspired him and his colleagues on this set. The long solo performance on “Old Folks” makes it plain that Friedman hardly needs bass and drums to make very good music. He has such momentum in this anything-but-snail’s-pace meditation. No sentimentality, no nonsense. He has Mraz and Friedman with him in order to make even better music, and this set repays repeated listening. More power to proper priorities.