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Dave Frishberg

Catching up with the pianoman, funnyman & lyrical genius

Dave Frishberg

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.”

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