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.
Which brings me back to our dance. After 30 years of knowing Don in a kind of passing way, Don’s close friend and manager Gino Moratti got us together with bassist Phil Palombi in the fall of 2015. We did some dates at the Kitano in NYC, playing music associated with another fellow traveler of Don’s, Jimmy Giuffre. We played some of Jimmy’s tunes, a few standards, Don’s originals, Carla Bley pieces, even some free improvisations, and every song we played drew me deeper and deeper into Don’s well. His inventiveness as a soloist and accompanist was beyond category, always taking us down the musical road less traveled and finding something at the end that made the whole journey worthwhile. When the gigs came to an end, we talked about getting together to record our own music and maybe do a tour. And then Don got sick, and then Don was gone.
Did he realize what a mark he made on the music and the people who played it? I’m not sure; he was a pretty self-effacing guy. One would have to really work at drawing out stories from him about his past accomplishments, and yet he could certainly express his joy and satisfaction in the moment. I do know that being with him altered me for the better, reminding me to keep a side door open for the unexpected visitor who might just take us on an odyssey.