Catching up with the pianoman, funnyman & lyrical genius
In October 2006, Dave Frishberg made one of his not infrequent visits to New York to appear at Feinstein’s at the Regency with vocalist Jessica Molaskey. As typically occurs whenever Frishberg plays Manhattan, the room was regularly dotted with A-list musicians who admire and respect his lyrical wordplay, his sardonic wit, his artistry as a pianist and what author Daniel Okrent once described as his “unbeautiful voice of limited range that nonetheless produces singing that’s as delightful as it is surprising.” Bette Midler dropped by, as did Diana Krall, Donald Fagen and Milton Nascimento.
Midway through the two-week run, Frishberg developed a kidney stone and, as Molaskey wryly notes, “Morphine and patter songs are a very dangerous mix.” One night the pain became so acute that Molaskey found herself in the back of a cab, rushing Frishberg to Lenox Hill Hospital. He quickly recovered and returned home to Portland, Ore. Precisely a year after that frantic taxi ride, flowers arrived at Molaskey’s door. They were from Frishberg, in celebration of what he’d decreed Kidney Stone Day. Each October since, there’s another bouquet. “Every year, it makes me laugh ’til I cry,” says Molaskey. “And I’m convinced that after Dave’s no longer with us he’ll rig something up so that I get kidney stone flowers from the grave, just so he can get that one last, satisfying laugh out of me.”
Delivering satisfying laughs has been Frishberg’s stock-in-trade for more than half a century. Both Molaskey and Rebecca Kilgore, the vocalist Frishberg has performed and recorded with most, compare the cleverness of his lyrics to that of Sondheim. As with Sondheim, appreciation of Frishberg’s brilliantly funny songs—say, the cleverly unhip “I’m Hip” (music by Bob Dorough); the ode to contemporary marital distraction “Quality Time”; or the font of prevarication that is “Blizzard of Lies”—demands a certain sophistication.
And rare, indeed, is the writer who can seamlessly incorporate “debenture” or “abattoir” into a lyric, or shape an entire song of just baseball players’ names, as Frishberg did with “Van Lingle Mungo.” (He loves to share the story of an audience member who, after hearing the baseball tune, praised Frishberg on his flawless Portuguese.) Then there are the love songs—“Heart’s Desire,” “You Are There” and “Listen Here” among them—and such stunning evocations of homesickness as “Do You Miss New York?” and “Sweet Kentucky Ham,” easily as beautiful, and cunning, as anything Porter, Hart or Mercer ever crafted.
But Frishberg didn’t set out to be a songwriter or singer. Growing up in St. Paul, Minn., and inspired by his older brother’s record collection, he just wanted to play jazz piano. He encountered his first teacher by accident when both he and pianist Jimmy Mulcrone landed Christmastime jobs packing records at the local Columbia warehouse. “I knew his name as a bebopper,” Frishberg recalls. “I was 15 or 16, and Eddie Condon’s Gang was my kind of music. I’d made a couple of records with my brother; you could go into a department store and record directly onto acetate discs. I was copying Joe Turner and Pete Johnson. I played the records for Mulcrone and he said, ‘Well, you can play, but I think you need help broadening your ear.’ It was the first time I heard Bud Powell and Al Haig, and we paid a lot of attention to Nat Cole. It changed my life.”
It was during a mid-’50s stint in the Air Force that Frishberg, stationed in Salt Lake City, began writing. He’d become friendly with a group of local musicians who’d started a company creating TV jingles, and they invited him to contribute. In 1957, as his Air Force tenure was ending, he encountered saxophonist Bob Cooper passing through town. “I asked him, ‘Where should I go: L.A. or New York?’ and he said, ‘Forget L.A. You’ve got to go to New York because that’s where Sonny Rollins is.’ He thought that was a complete argument.”
Frishberg’s first regular New York piano gig was with trombonist Kai Winding, followed by stretches with Carmen McRae—“No matter when you saw her, she was angry about something, but she was a lesson in how to sing well”—Bobby Hackett, Anita O’Day and, in 1962, Ben Webster. “He wasn’t my favorite sax player,” says Frishberg, “but I appreciated what he was doing and that he was unique, and everybody in the music business worshipped him.”
Frishberg spent the balance of the ’60s working for Zoot Sims and Al Cohn. “That was the acme of jazz playing,” he says. “It was Lester Young brought to the greatest power. Neither of them knew how to play a cheap note, and nobody could imitate them. It was a totally nourishing educational experience, the best jazz I’ve ever been associated with.” Two decades later he’d salute Sims by fitting lyrics to “Red Door,” re-naming it “Zoot Walks In.”
It was during his Webster days that Frishberg published his first song. “Dick Haymes’ wife, singer Fran Jeffries, asked me to come up with a funny, sexy song for her to use in her act,” he remembers. “So I wrote ‘Peel Me a Grape’ with her in mind, but she didn’t like it and never sang it.” O’Day and Blossom Dearie soon after recorded it. Yet it wasn’t until Diana Krall included it on her 1997 album Love Scenes that the song earned mass attention. What does Frishberg think of Krall’s version? “Ka-ching!” he laughs. “That was the down payment on a house. But I love her piano playing and she sings great, too.”
In the early ’70s, Frishberg was lured to L.A. by sitcom writers Sam Denoff and Bill Persky (of The Dick Van Dyke Show fame) to create special musical material for a short-lived series called The Funny Side, hosted by Gene Kelly. Around that time, he’d started singing, though only to help promote his songs. “I couldn’t stand the way demo singers did my songs,” he says. “They were skillful, but didn’t get what the songs were about. So I sang my own demos in self-defense.”
Frishberg recorded his debut album, Oklahoma Toad, for Creed Taylor’s CTI label in 1969. In 1977, he signed with Concord Records and, at the behest of Concord honcho Carl Jefferson, made his concert debut as a singer. “Carl called and asked if I’d open the show at the Concord Pavilion. He said he wanted me to sing, so I asked who I was opening for, and he said Bing Crosby!”
Since then, Frishberg has recorded nearly two dozen albums, including four in partnership with Kilgore. After relocating from L.A. to Portland in 1986, he and Kilgore spent five years sharing a twice-weekly gig at the Heathman Hotel. “We clicked right from the start,” says Kilgore. “He knew all the old material that I’m in love with. And as a pianist he is the greatest. His two hands are an orchestra, and he’s got all these internal harmonies happening. It’s very deep and creative and quirky yet utterly logical. I follow whatever twists and turns he takes. He’ll change keys or try a tempo I hadn’t thought of, and it is all cool.”
Adds Molaskey, who appeared with Frishberg at the Oak Room earlier this year (a live recording will be released by Arbors next spring), “He is the most idiosyncratic piano player ever. When you’re performing with him you have to buckle yourself in. It’s like a rollercoaster and you can’t see where you’re going. He’s taught me how to be really, really spontaneous.”
Frishberg remains, at heart, a piano player. “I’ve never really enjoyed the process of writing that much,” he admits. “I’m too lazy. I don’t like to work that hard. But I knew I could do it well, and that made me stick with it. Piano playing is easier for me. Still, God gave me a gift of musicality and I figured if I didn’t run with it I was an asshole. So I forced myself to write. It saved my life. I don’t know what I’d be doing if it weren’t for my songs; I wouldn’t be making any money. They’ve allowed me to continue playing.”
Though Frishberg rarely performs his own material in his hometown, this past February he agreed to do so at the Portland Jazz Festival. Kilgore was there and recalls, “There was a packed audience, and at intermission it was officially declared Dave Frishberg Day.” The annual Portland event will be celebrated on Feb. 21, which, according to the Frishbergian calendar, is almost exactly eight months prior to Kidney Stone Day.
Can’t Take You Nowhere (Fantasy, 1987)
Classics (Concord Jazz, 1991)
Do You Miss New York? Live at Jazz at Lincoln Center (Arbors, 2003)
Why Fight the Feeling? Songs by Frank Loesser (with Rebecca Kilgore; Arbors, 2008)