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Making Jazz The Old-fashioned Way

January 16, 1986|ZAN STEWART

While many artists in the jazz world scramble to keep abreast of current pop trends and the latest in electronic instruments, singer/songwriter/pianist Dave Frishberg would rather be involved with the jazz that was popular in the '40s and '50s.

"Those were the years when jazz really turned me on," the musician who has accompanied such greats as saxophonists Ben Webster, Al Cohn and Zoot Sims said last weekend in the studio of his Van Nuys home. "Then, the jazzmen used the pop music of the day, the music of the songwriters--Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Cole Porter and the others.

"It was the golden age of jazz."

Frishberg, the singular songwriter whose 100-plus-tune repertoire includes such favorites as "I'm Hip" and "My Attorney Bernie," continues to work in the style that so strongly moved him.

"The language of the classic pop songwriters is a natural for me," he said, "and that's the way I still think of music. I still feel comfortable using the harmonies of that era. But I'm dealing with them on my own terms, in my songs."

Though he's a first-rate pianist, writing songs rather than concocting moody instrumental jazz pieces is Frishberg's forte. "I'm not interested in writing effects or grooves or moods," he explained. "I'm really interested in writing a song in the old-fashioned way. The challenge is to make a really good melody, harmonize it in an ingenious way and come up with something that I'm proud of."

Frishberg thinks a lot of people are overlooking his musical strengths because he writes catchy lyrics. "Those who think I'm just a clever lyricist are missing the point," he said, "because it's not that big a deal. It's a much bigger deal to write good music and set the lyrics in an effective way."

Something's working for the 52-year-old Frishberg, for the soft-spoken composer was just awarded his third Grammy nomination, as Best Male Jazz Vocalist for his "Live at Vine Street" LP on Fantasy (the others were "Dave Frishberg Songbook--Vols. I & II" on Omnisound). Frishberg's new book of songs, "I'm Hip and Other Songs Beyond Category" (EK Publishing), should also increase his visibility.

When he returns to Vine Street tonight through Saturday, he'll no doubt air a few tunes from his in-progress stage show, on which he works most mornings from 7 until noon. "The show is about a guy who gets into an uncomfortable situation because of his enthusiasm for nostalgia," he said, laughing quietly. "Some of the tunes have been recorded on the 'Vine Street' LP, like 'You'd Rather Have the Blues.'

"The show is different from what I've been doing, not only because I have a collaborator working on the book, but because most of my songs have been for me to perform. These new ones are for groups, like two guys singing to two guys, and other ensembles. And they have to be constructed differently."

Though Frishberg has been singing his tunes and playing unaccompanied piano for just seven years, he's been writing songs since the mid-'50s. The native of St. Paul, Minn., was concocting jingles while in the Air Force in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1955-56, and continued to hone his craft--though he mostly made his living as a jazz pianist--after moving to New York in 1957.

First, he tried to come up with songs for the hit parade, but he said the result was "silly and I felt like a jerk."

Still, his 1970 "Oklahoma Toad" LP (CTI), a mishmash of styles from light jazz to country and Western, attracted the attention of a producer in Hollywood, who brought Frishberg here in 1971 to write for a short-lived NBC show, "The Funny Side." After a short fling at studio work, he made a mid-'70s tour with Herb Alpert's Tijuana Brass. "That band clicked like few bands I've been with. We had great musicians, like the late drummer Nick Ceroli, and we took music that was pretty lame and had a lot of fun with it."

After the Brass, Frishberg became a steady sideman in the L.A. jazz scene, and though today he spends most of his time working as a solo act, he's still the regular pianist with Bill Berry's L.A. big band.

"I love playing with Bill," he said, "because we use the tunes that caused me to fall in love with jazz in the first place."

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