By Don Heckman
Dave Frishberg brought his one man show to L.A. last week for a nonstop performance of nearly two hours in a Jazz Bakery Movable Feast. Seated at a darkly shining piano positioned in solitary splendor at the center of the vast, enveloping stage of the Kirk Douglas Theatre, the balding, bespectacled Frishberg presented a far-reaching survey of his remarkable collection of songs.
I knew that I had to cover his performance for a lot of reasons. One, because he’s a first rate jazz pianist, adept at every style reaching from stride to bebop. And his rendering of his songs are always wrapped in precisely the right piano settings. Two, of course, for his songs, which balance wit and whimsy with sardonic humor, subtle romanticism and beautifully poised rhyming. No wonder that he’s often described as the Stephen Sondheim of jazz composers.
And third, because I wanted to hear him sing ‘Do You Miss New York?” For someone who spent his early life in New York, and who now – after decades in Los Angeles – still sometimes feels in exile from his homeland, the song has an irresistible appeal.
For the most part, Frishberg didn’t disappoint. He started out with the delightfully whimsical “Slappin’ the Cakes on Me,” continued with “Can’t Take You Nowhere,” based on a jazz line by Al Cohn and Tiny Kahn, and added a hilarious character sketch of “Jaws.”
And there was a lot more, over the course of a two hour set, with no intermission. The diversity of Frishberg’s style, substance and sophistication was fully apparent in songs such as “Brenda Starr,” a tribute to the comic strip heroine, and “Eloise” and the richly sardonic “Will You Die” (aimed at Dorothy Parker) from Frishberg’s musical Vitriol and Violets.
His interest in sports surfaced with “Who Do You Think You Are? (Jack Dempsey?)” and a group of songs – including the tongue-twisting “Van Lingle Mongo” from his musical The Catbird Seat. And, aiming his wit directly at the Southland audience, he included “Too Long In L.A.”
Impressive, all of it. A stunning collection of utterly memorable songs. Delivered with complete justification for Ruth Price’s opening assertion that “Dave would be one of my favorite piano players, even if he never sang another note.” No argument there.
But there was something missing, as well. A few items, in fact. With a catalog as large and far-reaching as Frishberg’s, any given program inevitably omits individual listener favorites. Even granting that, however, some classics shouldn’t have been overlooked — songs that Frishberg’s fans know and love such as “Peel Me A Grape,“ “You Are There,” “I’m Hip,” and “I’m Just A Bill” (from his songs for the television series Schoolhouse Rock).
And, for this listener, the most important omission — “Do You Miss New York?” Has Frishberg been living in Portland, Oregon so long that he’s lost touch with the feelings that generated the song in the first place? C’mon, Dave. There are still tons of us émigrés out here in La-La Land who still feel deeply connected with the Big Apple.
Despite my deep affection for Frishberg’s music is that the reason it took me a while to get around to writing this review? Maybe.