Growing up in St. Paul, Minnesota, Dave Frishberg says he started playing jazz by listening to his older brother’s record collection. Soon he was playing blues by ear. Recently, I spoke with this veteran jazz pianist, composer and arranger.
Has there ever been a place where you traveled to perform and you thought “I could live here?”
Yes, Portland! I was in New York for 15 years and I was in L.A. for 15 years as a pianist. I’d had it with both places and I came up here and played in Portland a couple of times, played a few jazz places — the Quarry, remember that one? I was fed up with L.A, so I said, “Where would I like to go?” I’d played about three times in Portland and I just knew I liked the vibe about the town and I’d met some excellent musicians here, so that was my choice.
Other than the piano, what instrument do you appreciate the most?
I always really love the sound of the tenor saxophone. I enjoy playing something with it and hearing really good saxophone players. It might be the register it’s played in. It’s just the sound. The voice of jazz is the saxophone. Saxophones belong to jazz and the sound of jazz is the saxophone sound. I wrote a song — “Zoot Walks In” — that’s got that in the lyric — “jazz is a saxophone sound.”
You walk up to two musicians sitting at a table; who would you want them to be?
Jimmy Rowles for sure. He was one of the most interesting characters I ever ran into in the business. Brilliant guy, brilliant player. I met him in Los Angeles. Rowles’ playing was so influential on me. When I first began playing at all, I heard him on records with Woody Herman. He just knocked me out. His touch was so unique. His mind was so wonderful. I would enjoy being with him once again like I used to before he died. The same about my friend Dave Karr, a saxophone player who lives in the Twin Cities where I grew up. I think he’s probably a musician that’s in that same echelon of saxophone players as Al Cohn and Zoot Sims. He’s the best jazz musician, as far as I’m concerned, a world class jazz player.
What music do you prefer that might surprise people?
I think the most exciting music in the world today is Brazilian music. It’s the richest bunch of music literature that exists today and I think people would be surprised to find how beautiful Brazilian music is in all its different guises. The samba is wonderful, but it also has a harmonic ethic about it that’s really wonderfully touching, wonderfully beautiful. I think the best music in the world now is what the Brazilians are playing.
You know how to play that New Orleans early jazz sound; do you think of yourself as having that New Orleans sound?
No, but I was certainly influenced by a New Orleans player and that was Jelly Roll Morton. I love his records. I liked the way he approached the piano. His sound has never been recreated by any other piano player I can think of. He just knocks me out. I learned a few of his songs — got some sheet music of Jelly Roll — and a lot of the music took place after I got to Portland, though I have played three times in the French Quarter at the Royal Sonesta!