Not Singing Too Much

A vocal performance by the pianist and songwriter Dave Frishberg is more like a series of witty asides

THE pianist and singer Dave Frishberg once introduced his song "The Dear Departed Past" by explaining that it was written from the point of view of "a guy very much like myself, very much hung up on the old ways and the old days -- pathologically hung up, I guess -- [who] also happens to be, like myself, a sports-trivia enthusiast." In the lyrics Frishberg wonders, "Can one feel a real nostalgia for a time and place one never even knew?" For the sixty-four-year-old Frishberg, who writes both words and music, the answer is yes. Many of his lyrics satirize contemporary foibles, including the propensity of many successful people to take themselves much too seriously ("I'm impressed with my attorney Bernie," begins a Frishberg song that marvels at the aplomb of a fellow who is quite impressed with himself). But in one song Frishberg offers cautionary advice to the dissolute cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, who died of infirmities brought on by alcoholism in 1931, two years before Frishberg's birth; in another he raises a cheer for the dead-ball-era pitcher Christy Mathewson, who hung up his glove in 1916.

A throwback to the days when jazz instrumentalists who wrote music were songwriters rather than composers, Frishberg is also something of a throwback as a pianist, without being a musical revivalist. Although his ambition as a teenager in St. Paul, Minnesota, was to go to New York or Los Angeles and become a bebop pianist, his formative influences included such blues and boogie-woogie men as Jay McShann, Pete Johnson, and Albert Ammons. And despite cracking one of modern jazz's many inner circles by becoming the pianist in a quintet under the joint leadership of the tenor saxophonists Al Cohn and Zoot Sims in 1963, several years after arriving in New York, Frishberg also found himself in demand among swing musicians -- if for no other reason than that he was one of a handful of younger pianists familiar with their repertoire.

A typical Frishberg vocal is a series of witty asides, delivered in a small, reedy tenor at once tenacious and unassuming -- not a singer's voice, as Frishberg would be the first to admit, but that of a songwriter and pianist overcoming his inhibitions and giving a lyric his best shot. As a singer, he is the very definition of an acquired taste. He took up singing nearly thirty years ago, because the Paul Ankas and Steve Lawrences for whom he imagined he was writing hits refused to give him a nibble. Blossom Dearie, also a songwriter, a pianist, and a conversational singer, was the first to recognize the potential of Frishberg's songs. In recent years his tunes have been performed by many jazz and cabaret singers, including Rosemary Clooney, who dedicated Frishberg's road-weary lament "Sweet Kentucky Ham" to President Bill Clinton when she sang it at a jazz festival on the White House lawn in 1993. Frishberg affectionately refers to most of the others who have recorded his songs (and, by extension, to himself) as "cult" singers -- "'cult' being an accounting term, I guess."

He says that when he listens to other singers performing his songs, he sometimes thinks, "I wish they wouldn't sing so much." This is a wish unlikely ever to be made about Frishberg. An arranger hoping to orchestrate one of his songs once accused him of singing in too "confidential" a key. "Singers like to hear their voices," Frishberg says, "and they get caught up in the sounds they're making, bending notes and all of that. But because I'm usually writing for myself, I very seldom write anything that's vocally challenging. A lot of them I like to deliver out of tempo, as conversation. And when I hear them stretched out into long, songy lines . . . it works, I guess, but I get impatient, because I want people to be able to concentrate on the words. Somebody once asked me if I wanted to submit some songs to a certain singer, a big Broadway star, and I answered, without trying to be funny, that I didn't think I had anything that loud."

ONE of Frishberg's most recorded songs is a ballad called "Heart's Desire," for which he wrote only the lyrics. (The melody, which has a musing quality that makes it ideal for a pianist, is by Alan Broadbent, a former Woody Herman sideman and arranger who is now the pianist in Charlie Haden's Quartet West.) The song that has earned Frishberg the most in royalties over the years, however, is one that neither he nor any of his usual interpreters has ever recorded. Written in 1974 on assignment for the Saturday-morning TV series Schoolhouse Rock, and still in the show's rotation, sung by Frishberg's friend Jack Sheldon, "I'm Just a Bill" follows a bill through Congress on its way to becoming a piece of legislation. In addition to easing some of Frishberg's financial anxieties, the ditty has made him a hero to his sons, Harry and Max, twelve and ten.

"In my kids' world, my credential is that I wrote 'I'm Just a Bill,"' Frishberg said when I called on him at home in the hills of Portland, Oregon, last year. The song has given his sons, who live not far away with their mother, Frishberg's ex-wife, something to boast about to their schoolmates. According to Frishberg, even his boys' teachers are impressed. This could be because Frishberg's song is one of only a few from the series that fulfill their educational mission (Strunk and White themselves might have had trouble following Bob Dorough's "Busy Prepositions" and "Conjunction Junction"), though a likelier explanation is that plenty of today's younger teachers grew up with it. It's their musical comfort food -- the song that their contemporary Winona Ryder in effect pigs out on after breaking up with her boyfriend in the pandering 1994 movie Reality Bites.

Frishberg has accurately described the rest of his songs as being "for adults, or at least for people who wouldn't mind growing up." "Heart's Desire" is more typical of his work, though it, too, is a kind of children's song; it was written soon after Frishberg's divorce, and is an attempt to pass along some fatherly advice to his boys. At face value, Frishberg's lyric is about the importance of heeding what you perceive to be your calling -- your heart's desire. As he sings it, however, the focus of the lyric shifts from these words of wisdom to their giver, a man whose own heart's desire is not just the love but the future happiness of the person or people he's addressing. As featured on his album Where You At? (Sterling S1005-2), "Heart's Desire" is one of very few songs on which Frishberg, who usually has just as much voice as he needs to sing his songs, gives evidence of straining, perhaps because Broadbent's melody goes a little high for him. Or perhaps it's because this is the place to strain.

In his stage banter and private conversation as well as in his lyrics, Frishberg has a way with a quip that is often the public face of mild depression. I once heard him tell an audience that Minnesota Public Radio had asked him during the 1992 presidential election to write a song about the ailing economy. At first he refused, not thinking himself a topical songwriter. When the network said that it was really after a song about "hopelessness and despair," Frishberg said, "You've come to the right guy." He wrote a dystopian anthem called "My Country Used to Be." About an early effort called "Another Song About Paris," Frishberg once commented in a liner note, "I wrote it for a specific character to sing -- a dyspeptic, bad-tempered American. Imagine my surprise when, with the passing of years, the character turned out to be me."

IF not for the CD-ROM speakers under his worktable and the view of a forest over his piano, the main room of Frishberg's home could be a stage set for "The Dear Departed Past." In addition to a random selection of baseball and football annuals from the 1930s and 1940s, his sports memorabilia include an autographed copy of a Christy Mathewson baseball novel for boys; Frishberg believes that the book once belonged to Hal Chase, a first baseman of Mathewson's era who left the major leagues under suspicion of throwing games. He also owns first editions of Robert Benchley and Ring Lardner, and a wall of cassettes and framed photographs is practically a shrine to Al Cohn and Zoot Sims.

My visit to Frishberg's home was more on the order of a continuing conversation than an interview. I had first met him about eight years earlier, in a used-record store in London, where we chatted over coffee after I beat him to a copy of Cohn's Mr. Music. I think we next talked in New York a few years later, between his sets in a jazz club on Union Square; the maitre d' interrupted us at one point to tell Frishberg that "Vegas is calling you, Dave." "About time," Frishberg exclaimed, without missing a beat. (The call turned out to be from the wife of a musician he once knew; she wanted Frishberg's help in lining up gigs for her son, a trombonist determined to try his luck in New York.) Frishberg and I also once talked after his show at a midtown-Manhattan cabaret, around the same time that he made an appearance on the radio program A Prairie Home Companion. Seeing the nostalgic faces of the locals all around me as he sang his evocative "Do You Miss New York?," written several years after he switched coasts, in 1971, I realized that the New York they clung to had become a city one no longer needed to leave in order to miss -- as imaginary a place as Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon.

No doubt thinking of this song's passing reference to Annie Hall, and the passing resemblance Frishberg bears to its star and director (beaky, bespectacled, and balding), a British journalist once proclaimed him "a Woody Allen of song." This quotation still sometimes shows up in Frishberg's press releases, but it doesn't capture him. For one thing, Frishberg's background is closer to that of Diane Keaton's title character than to that of Allen's Alvy Singer. Culturally he seems more midwestern than Jewish. When explaining to audiences the sort of man who is singing "The Dear Departed Past," he pronounces "enthusiast" with the stress on the final syllable; he may be the only person I know who, when someone passes along a bit of incredible information, responds with a comic-book exclamation very much like "Pshew!" His singing, too, is midwestern in character, and this could be what people have in mind when they liken him to the Indiana-born songwriter Hoagy Carmichael. But even Carmichael had greater vocal range.

"Singer-songwriter" is a designation as common in pop as it is uncommon in jazz, and because so many of today's pop songwriters refer to their own experiences in their songs, people assume that Frishberg must be speaking personally too. But he often writes in character -- or, as he puts it, "Every song I write seems to have a little character in my head singing it, and it's often not me. And this to me is an aid in writing. I can give myself a point of view that isn't the same nagging, neurotic point of view. Or if it is, at least it's somebody else talking."

More than Frishberg himself, the characters to whom he sometimes yields the floor are familiar types from Allen's films. One of his cleverest up-tempo patter songs, in the same vein as "My Attorney Bernie," is "Quality Time," in which a yuppie dealmaker proposes a romantic idyll to his fast-track wife, though he is apparently unable to imagine even an amorous getaway without power lunches and access to a laptop fax.

One of Frishberg's heroes was Frank Loesser, whose scores include Guys and Dolls and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and who once advised Frishberg that song lyrics were not poetry but a form of journalism. This must have come as good news, given that Frishberg had majored in journalism at the University of Minnesota and had contributed first-person-plural "Talk of the Town"-like pieces to a campus literary magazine. Frishberg likes to say that as a lyricist he is still a kind of journalist. But because he writes in so many different voices, his modus operandi is more like that of a novelist or a playwright. The whole time he was writing "Quality Time," he once told an audience, "I kept asking myself, 'Who is this jerk?' Then I realized -- it's Bernie."

"I HEARD something funny the other day," Frishberg said in response to one of my questions about his affinity for times gone by. "Somebody asks a guy, 'Where are you living these days?' And he says, 'In the past.' At times I wonder if we don't subconsciously borrow our parents' expectations about life and refer back to the things that touched them when they were young." Gesturing toward his books, he added, "Because that's what I sometimes refer back to -- a period when I wasn't even alive."

Nostalgia isn't what it used to be, as the cliché goes; it has become politically incorrect. Once regarded as a harmless expression of alienation or a common side effect of growing older, a belief that life used to be better is now taken by an increasing number of social commentators to be a rejection of the creed of multiculturalism -- a pacified form of white male rage. Frishberg leaves himself open to such charges. In the inverted world of jazz, white musicians are often the ones nursing racial grievances, and Frishberg remembers getting the cold shoulder from some black musicians in New York in the 1960s, during the stormiest days of the black-power movement. "Archie Shepp was, I think, the first guy to challenge me directly about being white, and I was taken completely unawares by this. My feelings were hurt from that standpoint, because I thought that the fact that we both knew how to play 'Groovin' High' was enough to make us some sort of brothers. And at the same time this was going on, I was losing interest in jazz as a genre, maybe because I felt excluded in a way that seemed kind of arbitrary. The music was changing in character, and I didn't really feel comfortable affecting a menacing posture as a jazz musician."

In his defense, Frishberg's is a nostalgia largely without memory, and it is close to becoming a universal condition. In 1947 the poet Parker Tyler, who was both his era's most probing film critic and its most Freudian, wrote that the "psychoanalytic trend in movies," as represented by dream sequences in such films as Spellbound and Lady in the Dark, had the potential to transform the unconscious into "a place." Along with television and photographs, movies have similarly transformed the past, making it a visible part of the present that is different from the rest of our world only in not including us. Just as Frishberg isn't alone -- or necessarily mistaken -- in believing that yesterday was more civil, he isn't unique in lamenting that time has too great a head start on him. This is what collecting tends to be about, and it is also the raison d'être for American Movie Classics and Nick at Nite. It's what makes "The Dear Departed Past" a song about looking back in longing, not in anger, and what accounts for its unexpected power.

PORTLAND seems like the perfect headquarters for a man awash in memories real and imagined. Its downtown looks stylish rather than derelict because of the many older buildings still in use, including a restored movie palace that now houses the symphony, and a luxury hotel, the Heathman. Until last year Frishberg accompanied the singer Rebecca Kilgore in the hotel bar two nights a week. Frishberg moved here from Los Angeles in 1986, thinking that Portland would be a better place to raise his boys, and he stayed on to be near them after the divorce. His reason for going to the West Coast in the first place was to take a job as a songwriter for a TV comedy hour called The Funny Side, a vehicle for Gene Kelly that was canceled after half a season in 1971. Frishberg recalls that the first song he wrote for Kelly --"Save Us From Sunday," about the things that can go wrong on Sundays -- gave Kelly problems, because it required him to begin singing between beats. "Jack Elliott, the music director, says to me, 'You gotta learn to write simpler.' I said, 'Simpler? What could be simpler than an eighth-note rest? I thought Gene Kelly was musical.' And Jack said, 'He is, from the ankles down.'"

Luckily for Frishberg, Portland brought the unaffected Kilgore his way. Her taste in songs, like his, runs to worthy items from the 1930s and 1940s that haven't been done to death by others (such as Cole Porter's "Looking at You," which is on Kilgore and Frishberg's album Looking at You, PHD Music PHD 1004-CD, and Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane's "An Occasional Man," which she recorded for the more recent Not a Care in the World, Arbors Jazz ARCD 19169). A surprise for me, when I heard the two on their final night at the Heathman, was that Kilgore didn't sing any of Frishberg's songs, and he didn't sing at all. Nor, he told me, would he be singing or featuring any of his own numbers while subbing that weekend for another pianist in the piano bar of a hotel closer to the waterfront. "I need a place to be a pianist," he explained. "If you start to sing here, especially your own songs, right away you're an 'act' and you don't get called for other gigs. That's what had started to happen in L.A., and I couldn't afford to let it happen in Portland."

The song Frishberg was writing when I visited him is called "I Want to Be a Sideman," and this time the identity of the "little character" with a claim to Frishberg's ear is no mystery. Frishberg told me that when not performing his own songs, he not only doesn't mind a noisy room like the Heathman bar but actually prefers one. "Sometimes it's good to feel that you're not under a microscope, with everyone waiting for your next note. Several musicians I know have said that to me, and we've agreed: 'Gee, I wish they'd talk among themselves so that I could loosen up a little bit.'"

It's another story when Frishberg sings. "I want their attention so bad," he said. "I don't want them to miss a single word." This reminded me of something he had said earlier, in talking about advice he received from Frank Loesser. "I remember him going over one of my lyrics and telling me, 'Now, there's a colorful word, but do you really want it where it'll get lost in that jumble of notes? Put it near a rest.' He cautioned me against using what he called 'colorful' words where they might draw so much attention to themselves that they would prevent the listener from absorbing what was coming next."

Frishberg seems to have taken Loesser's words to heart not just as a lyricist but as a self-accompanist. "I think I play a lot less for myself than I do behind other singers," he told me. "I sometimes fear that I can be a rather intrusive accompanist. I tend to play too much, to try to inject my own personality, because I'm basically a piano stylist, as opposed to an all-arounder. I know I'm a better accompanist for myself than I am for anybody else, because I know where in the lyric it's better for me to let my hands be quiet, to draw attention to the words."

Frishberg is correct in thinking of himself as two different pianists. One is the unencumbered orchestra-in-miniature who can be heard to ideal advantage on his 1989 recording of Duke Ellington's "The Mooche," from Let's Eat Home (Concord Jazz CCD-4402). This is also the pianist who demonstrates his bebop expertise in a series of duets with the Portland-area-based alto saxophonist Warren Rand on Dameron II-V (Aspen Grove ACCD001), Rand's tribute to the bebop composer Tadd Dameron. The other pianist lurking in Frishberg is the epigrammatist who takes over the bench behind Frishberg's vocals. The album on which these two most happily coexist is Where You At?, recorded in Paris in 1991. This is an atypical effort for Frishberg in that it features him singing a few songs he did not write, and he does a very likable job of phrasing them. They include Johnny Mercer's "Harlem Butterfly" and "I'm an Old Cowhand," and Walter Bullock and Allie Wrubel's "The You and Me That Used to Be," a wonderful song from the 1930s about the "old days" that was the title track of a classic LP Frishberg arranged for Jimmy Rushing in 1971. Where You At? also has going for it the definitive reading of "Heart's Desire," featuring an exquisitely wounded-sounding solo by the expatriate trombonist Glenn Ferris. The best recorded version of "The Dear Departed Past" is the one on Frishberg's 1984 solo album Live at Vine Street (Fantasy OJCCD-832-2). A more recent version is on Quality Time (Sterling S1006-2), from 1993, but here Frishberg, in his capacity as producer, undermines himself by adding a rhythm section and horns. "The Dear Departed Past" is a song about a man alone with his own thoughts, and it should sound that way.

EVEN so, Quality Time is worth seeking out for a blissful and fairly new Frishberg song called "Snowbound" and for the devastatingly funny title tune. A good selection of Frishberg's earlier numbers, including "Sweet Kentucky Ham," "Do You Miss New York?," and "My Attorney Bernie," can be found on Classics (Concord Jazz CCD-4462), a reissue of recordings from the early 1980s. "I Want to Be a Sideman"is one of four vocal performances on the new Dave Frishberg by Himself (Arbors Jazz ARCD-19185), an album featuring Frishberg the expansive solo pianist.

The reason Frishberg has never gotten around to recording "I'm Just a Bill" could be that he's content to let everyone else sing it. He performs the song in concert upon request, but requests for it aren't all that common. Few people in Frishberg's age group have ever paid attention to "I'm Just a Bill," much less associate it with him. But the song does have a way of following him around, as he told Terry Gross, of the National Public Radio program Fresh Air, in a story about visiting a friend in the hospital.

Illustration by Joe Ciardiello

The Atlantic Monthly; February 1998; Not Singing Too Much; Volume 281, No. 2; pages 90 - 95.