Playing music with pianist Don Friedman was like playing a great game of tennis—one of his passions—except the goal on the bandstand was not to win but to keep the ball in the air for as long as possible, and to play the game in an interesting and beautiful way. He and I danced around in each other’s orbit for 30 years. We’d see each other on festivals; we’d play a set or two together; we even did some horrid private functions together. And I was always struck by the contrast between his seemingly quiet, unassuming exterior and the incredibly deep well of thought and feeling that he drew from in his music. In those moments when we occasionally struck gold, he’d glance over with a boyish grin and a sparkle in his eye, looking for all the world like a boy who just found his pet dog.
The problem with a guy like Don—our problem, not his—is that when a person has crossed so many musical boundaries (Ornette, Eric Dolphy, Clark Terry, Attila Zoller, Lee Konitz, et al.) so effortlessly that he becomes a first-call sideman, people start using words like “journeyman,” “versatile” and, well, “sideman” around and about him, and he’s placed in the category of “appearing with” rather than just “appearing.” But my feeling is that the musician who hired Don Friedman would have been the luckiest one in the group because Don always made him or her play better. And the reason Don could play with anybody and everybody was not that he was some kind of musical chameleon, but simply that he approached every gig with a fresh, open perspective, ready to engage on all levels.