THE DOZENS: DAVE FRISHBERG by Thomas Cunniffe

Dave Frishberg once offered his original song “The Underdog” to Frank Sinatra. The song told the story of a gambler who always picked the longshots. Frishberg thought it would be a perfect fit for Sinatra’s image, complete with the trenchcoat slung over the shoulder. According to Frishberg, Sinatra’s reaction was “It’s a good song, but where’s the chick?”

 Dave Frishberg

The chick—and actually, love songs in general—have never been the focus of the Frishberg catalog, but every jazz singer of note has at least two or three Frishberg songs in his/her repertoire. Frishberg’s quirky songs usually have some element of humor, and they praise people in his life (“My Attorney Bernie”), idolize his heroes from music (“Dear Bix”), or satirize American society (“Blizzard Of Lies”). Baseball is a favorite subject, and in addition to the tributes “Van Lingo Mungo” and “Dodger Blue,” Frishberg has written songs for a never-produced musical about the Black Sox Scandal. Frishberg’s music is not just light-hearted, laugh-a-minute songs; some of his finest efforts, such as “You Are There” and “Sweet Kentucky Ham,” are quite touching and contain meanings that go far below the surface.

Frishberg is a fine swing pianist who played in the Al Cohn/Zoot Sims Quintet for several years. His singing voice is unique, but perfectly compliments the slightly off-center world of his songs. The dozen tracks that follow feature Frishberg’s most memorable songs as performed by the composer and some of his best interpreters.


Dave Frishberg: I Want To Be A Sideman

Track

I Want To Be A Sideman

Artist

Dave Frishberg (piano, vocals)

CD

Do You Miss New York? (Arbors 19291)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Dave Frishberg (piano, vocals).

Composed by Dave Frishberg

.

Recorded: Lincoln Center, New York, December 12-14, 2002

Dave_frishberg--do_you_miss_new_york

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

If you want to introduce a musician to the songs of Dave Frishberg, there’s no better example than “I Want To Be A Sideman”. Anyone who has ever toured with a big band knows all about the rigors of the road, but Frishberg, portraying someone on the outside looking in, makes it all sound so glamorous: I want to play while the people dance/I want to press my own coat and pants/I want to ask for an advance. Of course, it’s all a dark joke, which is made clear in the introduction, where Frishberg plays the intro of the hoariest of big band songs, “In The Mood”. Clearly, the audience is hip from the outset, laughing in recognition of the theme. But there is much more here: Under the lyric I want to listen to Lester Young on my recorder, Frishberg’s melody alludes to Lester’s famous “Jive At Five” solo (Frishberg told me it wasn’t intentional). And the lines quoted above are a typical example of Frishberg’s trademark triple rhyme schemes (dance/pants/advance). Frishberg’s work is loaded with these delightful triple rhymes, with the final one of the set always being the funniest. But perhaps most enlightening is the song’s final lines: I wanna be young/I wanna have fun/I want to be a sideman. It’s the responsibility-free life of a musician that Frishberg’s narrator really wants. As the old joke goes, the difference between a musician and a mutual fund is that only one of them will eventually mature and make money.

Reviewer: Thomas Cunniffe


Dave Frishberg: Van Lingle Mungo

Track

Van Lingle Mungo

Artist

Dave Frishberg (piano, vocals)

CD

Classics (Concord Jazz 4462)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Dave Frishberg (piano, vocals), Steve Gilmore (bass), Bill Goodwin (drums).

Composed by Dave Frishberg

.

Recorded: Stroudsburg, PA, April 1981

Dave_frishberg--classics

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

“Van Lingle Mungo” is one of Dave Frishberg’s most famous songs, primarily because of its lyric, which consists entirely of the names of baseball players. Not the Joe DiMaggios, Lou Gehrigs or Babe Ruths, mind you, but rather Johnny Pesky, Roy Campanella, and Bob Estellella, players unknown to all but the most fervent baseball fans. What elevates this song beyond a mere catalog of unusual names is Frishberg’s heartfelt delivery. He makes them sound like heroes, and one feels that if they were to ask Frishberg, he could tell you something about every player he mentions in the lyric. But before thinking of this song as a walk through the baseball Hall of Fame, note that Frishberg once said that when he sings this song softly over a bossa beat, the audience thinks he singing in Portuguese! So are there any great Portuguese baseball players?

Reviewer: Thomas Cunniffe


Judy Roberts: My Attorney Bernie

Track

My Attorney Bernie

Artist

Judy Roberts (piano, vocals)

CD

Circle Of Friends (Judy Roberts 1030)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Judy Roberts (piano, vocals),

Greg Fishman (flute), Neal Seroka (guitar), Stewart Miller (bass), Greg Sergo (drums)

.

Composed by Dave Frishberg

.

Recorded: Chicago, 1995

Judy_roberts--circle_of_friends

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

As performed by its composer and nearly everyone else, Dave Frishberg’s “My Attorney Bernie” is sung to a samba beat. However, my favorite recording of the song is by Judy Roberts, a delightful pianist/vocalist formerly from Chicago and now performing in Phoenix. Taken at a slow, sexy tempo, the arrangement starts with eight quarter notes on cowbell and a piano vamp (actually Frishberg’s introduction) which implies the sort of slow dance groove that Tito Puente used to play. But then, guitar and flute enter in quasi-double-time, adding the feel of samba. While these two Latin grooves have rarely—if ever—converged, they work very well together and the band locks into the groove immediately. Judy’s delivery of Frishberg’s song is light-hearted, relaxed and comic (especially on the line you keep on hangin’ tough), but she knows the importance of having a good lawyer in her corner, and we believe her when she tells us that she always does what Bernie recommends. The self-produced CD from which this track comes is a little hard to find, but is well worth acquiring, as it is one of Roberts’ finest efforts.

Reviewer: Thomas Cunniffe


Dave Frishberg: Slappin' The Cakes On Me

Track

Slappin' The Cakes On Me

Artist

Dave Frishberg (piano, vocals)

CD

Classics (Concord Jazz 4462)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Dave Frishberg (piano, vocals), Steve Gilmore (bass), Bill Goodwin (drums).

Composed by Dave Frishberg

.

Recorded: Stroudsburg, PA, April 1981

Dave_frishberg--classics

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

Love songs might not be Dave Frishberg’s forte, but that doesn’t mean that he hasn’t successfully explored elements of the dating ritual. I’m not exactly sure about the origins of the title, but it clearly refers to someone who is in a situation that’s way over his head. Here, Frishberg’s character is a guy who is not as skilled as he thinks at picking up women. At the beginning, as he walks in and checks out the club, Steve Gilmore’s descending bass glissando invokes an animal on the prowl. Then our not-so-smooth operator meets a woman who turns this attempted seduction on its head, inviting herself to sit down, and topping every corny line that the man offers. He even offers the old standby, What’s your sign to which she replies, Later for that—your place or mine? Thankfully, our would-be Romeo is smart enough to know that when faced with such a situation, it’s always best to hang on and enjoy the ride. Frishberg stops short of telling us what happened later—and different versions of the tale might come from each principal—but we can imagine that it was a night to remember, whatever the outcome.

Reviewer: Thomas Cunniffe


Dave Frishberg: Sweet Kentucky Ham

Track

Sweet Kentucky Ham

Artist

Dave Frishberg (piano, vocals)

CD

Classics (Concord Jazz 4462)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Dave Frishberg (piano, vocals).

Composed by Dave Frishberg

.

Recorded: Stroudsburg, PA, April 1981

Dave_frishberg--classics

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

I first heard this song performed by Rosemary Clooney and she described it as “the ultimate road song”. True enough, as the lyric tells of a bored traveler moving through the Midwestern cities of South Bend, Milwaukee and Cincinnati. Frishberg’s lyric focuses on two elements: the loneliness of travel (especially at night, when all of the scenes take place) and the food that one eats on the road. The second point is noteworthy because the traveler is dreaming of “Sweet Kentucky Ham”, but even more important is the first point, because throughout the song there is a strong intimation that it’s not just the ham that he wants, but the person who shares it with him. I doubt that Frishberg has ever included the words “I love you” in a lyric, but the emotions found deep in this lyric speak to a much deeper feeling than those three little words. Frishberg’s performance is letter perfect: his solo piano is the right accompaniment, as the addition of bass and drums would spoil the theme of loneliness, and his yearning vocal makes us believe that he has lived through this experience. The ultimate road song? Sure, but also a very profound love song.

Reviewer: Thomas Cunniffe


Diana Krall: Peel Me A Grape

Track

Peel Me A Grape

Artist

Diana Krall (vocals, piano)

CD

Love Scenes (Impulse 233)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Diana Krall (vocals, piano), Russell Malone (guitar), Christian McBride (bass).

Composed by Dave Frishberg

.

Recorded: Los Angeles (?), February-March 1997

Diana_krall--love_scenes

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

Several years ago at a Diana Krall performance in Denver, a man in the audience yelled out the predictable “I Love You, Diana”. She retorted, “No, you don’t want me—I’m too high-maintenance!”. Then she launched into “Peel Me A Grape”, which must be the anthem for high-maintenance women. The song, one of Dave Frisberg’s earliest works, takes its title from a famous Mae West line. Frishberg takes the title idea and runs with it, combining realistic requests with outlandish invented ones: Pop me a cork/French me a fry. While the song was reasonably well-known before, it was Diana Krall’s version that made the song a hit. Krall made a few politically correct changes to the lyric (Start me a smoke never turns up, and there are repeated lyrics which seem unusual for a Frishberg lyric), but what makes Krall’s version so enticing is the slow, slinky tempo and Krall’s soft, come-hither delivery. And lest we make the mistake of focusing on Krall’s vocals at the expense of her piano playing, dig her marvelous solo on this track: it nearly says as much without words as her vocal does with words.

Reviewer: Thomas Cunniffe


Dave Frishberg: Dear Bix

Track

Dear Bix

Artist

Dave Frishberg (piano, vocals)

CD

Lookin' Good (Concord Jazz 4998)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Dave Frishberg (piano, vocals),

Bob Findlay (cornet)

.

Composed by Dave Frishberg

.

Recorded: Los Angeles, January 25 or 26, 1977

Dave_frishberg--lookin__good

Rating: 92/100 (learn more)

I have to admit a personal preference for this song. In my freshman year at the University of Northern Colorado, I was featured on a vocal jazz arrangement of this piece. The arranger of that setting, Scott Fredrickson, was also the director of the ensemble, and he told me about Dave Frishberg and about a life-sized poster of Bix Beiderbecke that hung on the wall in Frishberg’s home. As the resident jazz historian at UNC, I took particular pride in singing this beautiful tribute to the late cornetist. A few years later, I heard this duet version from an early Frishberg album and I was captivated all over again. There is a marvelous intimacy to the lyric, as it speaks to Bix directly, referring to him as an old friend and chum, and tells him that he’s no ordinary, standard B-flat, run-of-the-mill type guy. What makes the performance so special is that there’s no attempt to imitate Bix; indeed, Bob Findlay sounds like Bobby Hackett to me, which is quite fitting. In fact, the only snippet of music that comes from Beiderbecke is the famous tag from “I’m Coming Virginia”, and while that quote is appropriate, it almost seems at odds with the aesthetic of non-imitation that held for most of the performance.

Reviewer: Thomas Cunniffe


Dave Frishberg: Brenda Starr

Track

Brenda Starr

Artist

Dave Frishberg (piano, vocals)

CD

Lookin' Good (Concord Jazz 4998)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Dave Frishberg (piano, vocals), Snooky Young (trumpet), Rob McConnell (valve trombone),

Jim Hughart (bass), Jeff Hamilton (drums)

.

Composed by Dave Frishberg and Johnny Mandel

.

Recorded: Los Angeles, August 1989

Dave_frishberg--lookin__good

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

As the newspaper business continues to decline, here’s a tongue-in-cheek tribute to a fictional heroine of newspapers long past: super-reporter Brenda Starr! Dave Frishberg and Johnny Mandel wrote this song for the movie “Brenda Starr”, but it wasn’t used in the film. The lyric brings back the days of “The Front Page” and its remake “His Girl Friday”, when newspaper writers would do anything to get a story. Most of the lyric is comprised of screaming, outlandish headlines—my favorite is Ex-wife of Russian czar will wed Kareem Abdul Jabbar—and Frishberg delivers the lines with a cynical edge that brings to mind the vocals of one of his heroes, Jimmy Rowles. There’s ample solo space on this recording and Snooky Young makes the most of a rare opportunity with a fine performance set entirely in the middle range. After boppish solos by Frishberg and Rob McConnell, Frishberg returns with the second verse, and the lyric reveals even more cynicism, with Read all about it/Don’t stop to doubt it/It’s in the papers/It’s gotta be true (yeah, right) and Judge takes bribe/So what’s new? Although Frishberg’s lyric supposedly refers to corrupt practices long since abandoned, it’s rather eerie to hear it in the context of today’s newspaper crisis.

Reviewer: Thomas Cunniffe


Susannah McCorkle: Blizzard Of Lies

Track

Blizzard Of Lies

Artist

CD

How Do You Keep The Music Playing? (The Jazz Alliance 10036)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Susannah McCorkle (vocals),

Ben Aronov (piano), Steve LaSpina (bass), Joey Cocuzzo (drums)

.

Composed by Dave Frishberg and Samantha Frishberg

.

Recorded: New York, June 1985

Susannah--how_do_you_keep_the_music_playing

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

Susannah McCorkle loved the songs of Dave Frishberg, and nearly all of her albums included a Frishberg tune. Her recording of “Blizzard Of Lies” enhances the original with a simple but effective addition to the song’s form. The song opens with a number of familiar platitudes: We must have lunch real soon/Your luggage is checked through, etc. Then the mood completely changes as the lyric declares that we’re marooned in a blizzard of lies. Frishberg’s lyrics always demand (and reward) close listening, but McCorkle takes no risk in this case: adding a two-bar extension between the platitudes and the payoff, she sings the one pivotal word: lies. While it could be argued that McCorkle ruins the joke on the first time through, she drives the point home throughout the recording. And on each of the three times that the extension appears, she finds a new way to twist that pivotal word. Also, listen to how she moves from sweet innocent to gritty cynic as the performance progresses, adding a rare “dirty” sound to her voice. Susannah’s suicide in 2001 was devastating to anyone who loved good songs, old or new, and while her sometimes difficult nature and battles with mental illness have been thoroughly documented (most notably in Linda Dahl’s book, Haunted Heart), the loss of this fine vocalist is still being felt nearly a decade later.

Reviewer: Thomas Cunniffe


Roberta Gambarini: You Are There

Track

You Are There

Artist

CD

You Are There (EmArcy 10622)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Roberta Gambarini (vocals), Hank Jones (piano).

Composed by Dave Frishberg and Johnny Mandel

.

Recorded: New York, September 27, 2005

Albumcoverrgambariniayouarethere

Rating: 85/100 (learn more)

Roberta Gambarini is a gifted vocalist who has earned high praise from critics and musicians alike. Blessed with perfect pitch (in a live show, you’ll never hear a pianist give her an opening pitch, even when she starts a song alone), she possesses a fine vocal instrument capable of remarkable agility. Her relationship with veteran pianist Hank Jones is both personal and professional, as she has saved Jones’ life twice in the past few years. So, with all that going for her, why am I less than enthralled by her recording of Dave Frishberg’s “You Are There”? Perhaps it’s the song itself: Frishberg lyric is about reflections and visions of someone who is not there, and while the song shouldn’t be sung with excessive emotion, Gamborini's performance is so understated that there's no emotional impact at all. It is beautifully sung, but utterly devoid of meaning. Jones plays exquisitely as usual, and his lovely introduction raises my overall appreciation for this track. I suspect if Jones were to perform a solo piano version of this song, it would be much more emotionally satisfying than the track presented here.

Reviewer: Thomas Cunniffe


Dave Frishberg: The Underdog

Track

The Underdog

Artist

Dave Frishberg (piano, vocals)

CD

Lookin' Good (Concord Jazz 4998)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Dave Frishberg (piano, vocals).

Composed by Dave Frishberg and Al Cohn

.

Recorded: Los Angeles, August 1989

Dave_frishberg--lookin__good

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

“The Underdog” may be one of the most profound lyrics that Dave Frishberg has ever created. The song is about a gambler who bets on long-shots or underdogs. Yet Frishberg’s storyline also creates a fully-developed character, who himself could be called an underdog. As a result, we can feel empathy for this man without decrying his gambling addiction. To be sure, the gambler understands his problem, but against all odds, he has hope that he, like his favored underdog, will be a winner someday. How many pop songs—even the classics—cover that much emotional ground? On this recording, Frishberg sings the song in free time, so that the effect is both conversational and confessional. Frishberg’s spare, lonely solo piano only adds to the melancholy mood. The ending is a wry twist on an old cliché: Sooner or later, you know every underdog will have his day and while it’s not a big ending, that same glimmer of hope shines through. Underdog or not, this song is a real winner.

Reviewer: Thomas Cunniffe


Dave Frishberg: I'm Hip

Track

I'm Hip

Artist

Dave Frishberg (piano, vocals)

CD

Classics (Concord Jazz 4462)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Dave Frishberg (piano, vocals), Steve Gilmore (bass), Bill Goodwin (drums).

Composed by Dave Frishberg and Bob Dorough

.

Recorded: Stroudsburg, PA, April 1981

Dave_frishberg--classics

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

The first unwritten rule of hipdom must be that hipness is a state of being. One is hip by demonstration, not by proclamation. All of which makes Dave Frishberg’s and Bob Dorough’s “I’m Hip” the classic statement of the wanna-be hipster. For the hip ones in the crowd, the lyric to this song is a goldmine of pseudo-hip references, like Sammy Davis knows my friend and Better show this to Quincy. Frishberg’s performance is a good barometer of hipness: nearly everyone can get the reference to watching French films in a movie theatre while wearing sunglasses, but fewer will dig the line about listening to jazz while poppin’ my thumbs/diggin’ the drums and only the hippest will truly understand Frishberg’s hilarious search for hip notes in the final chord. One thing puzzles me, though: in the original lyric, our hero reads Playboy and in this recording, he reads People. So, was Playboy considered too hip for him?

Reviewer: Thomas Cunniffe


Check out more ‘Dozens’ here