THE SOUND OF FRISHBERG : Pianist / Singer Writes Songs the Old-Fashioned Way--With Melody, Harmony and Wit

It’s kind of hard to imagine David Frishberg singing “I Write the Songs,” though that’s certainly what Frishberg does. Maybe not the smash hit songs like Barry Manilow’s or Billy Joel’s or Stephen Sondheim’s, but the little hits such as “I’m Hip,” “My Attorney Bernie,” “Peel Me a Grape” and “The Underdog” that have become legendary among jazz fans and lovers of more arcane pop. The Frishberg oeuvre currently comprises more than 100 pieces.

The pianist/songwriter/lyricist/singer, who will play solo Sunday at 3 in Founders Hall at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, has concocted ditties on his own and in collaboration with the likes of Johnny Mandel, Bob Dorough, Al Cohn and Alan Broadbent, with whom he wrote his latest, “Heart’s Desire.”

“Alan sent me this lovely melody and I wrote lyrics to it,” Frishberg recalled from his home in Portland, Ore. Even though all the kinks in the new song may not yet be worked out, Frishberg said, he’ll debut it during his Southern California sojourn which also includes a stop at the Cal State University Long Beach student union on Tuesday and an engagement May 2 through May 5 at the Vine Street Bar & Grill in Hollywood.

Frishberg tries to write songs in the Tin Pan Alley tradition, going for melodic and lyric content rather than flash or glitz. “I’m not interested in writing effects or grooves or moods,” he said in the buoyantly scratchy tenor that closely resembles his singing voice. “I’m really interested in writing a song the old-fashioned way. The challenge is to make a really good melody, harmonize it in an ingenious way, and come up with something I’m proud of.”


As much as he likes to knock out the numbers, he doesn’t do it all the time. “I’m not a compulsive writer and never have been,” he said. “I always write when there’s a project. Once I have an assignment, a deadline and a goal, I really take care of business.”

Some of Frishberg’s freshest can be found on “Let’s Eat Home,” a CD recently released by Concord Jazz. Among the numbers:

* “Brenda Starr,” Mandel’s theme from the as-yet-unreleased film, to which Frishberg attached a lyric written “in the spirit of comic strips, though I don’t remember ever reading ‘Brenda Starr’ per se.”

* “Matty,” a tome “sung by someone who saw Christy Mathewson, the great New York Giants pitcher, play ball.”


* The title track, with lyrics that are a typical Frishberg meld of sentiment and merriment.

These days, though, Frishberg said, he isn’t writing as humorously as he has in the past. “Lately, I find that my lyric writing is not out to get laughs like it used to, and I don’t know what that means,” he said. “I certainly like to keep humor in my songs.”

In any case, “Let’s Eat Home,” Frishberg’s first for Concord in more than 10 years (he’s also recorded for Omnisound and Fantasy) doesn’t neglect his pianistic talents. Those are what the St. Paul, Minn. native cashed in on when he moved to New York City in 1957, and for more than a decade, until he moved West, he played with many of his idols, including saxophonists Ben Webster, Al Cohn and Zoot Sims and trumpeter Roy Eldridge. (Frishberg moved to Los Angeles in 1971 and then to Portland four years ago).

Frishberg’s live shows feature plenty of piano too. Currently he’s including songs by Cohn, who is definitely a personal favorite, and Duke Ellington’s alter ego, Billy Strayhorn.

Each of his sets includes a medley, a practice that’s “fun and it keeps me learning tunes,” he said. “I also learn about programming tunes, how to group them. And since I like to play a lot of different ways, the medley lets me do that.”

Frishberg described his approach: “When I play, I try to keep the sound, the color and the texture different. Sometimes I like a full stride style, sometimes just two fingers creating two voices against each other. Sometimes I like a feeling that harks back to older styles. Other times I want to be more free and take a few chances.”

He has been influenced by various keyboardists throughout his career: from boppers like Bud Powell, Hank Jones and Al Haig to swing era greats Ellington and recent Pulitzer Prize-winner (and former Benny Goodman-ite) Mel Powell. But Jimmy Rowles, whom Frishberg first heard with Woody Herman’s Woodchoppers in 1949, is the current apple of his ear.

“I think a lot about Rowles,” Frishberg said. “Sometimes I even find myself saying as I’m playing, ‘I wonder what this would sound like if Jimmy Rowles were playing it?’ ”


Why Rowles?

“I guess it gets back to the same question of colors and textures and different sounds,” Frishberg answered. “I’ve never heard anyone control . . . ,” he paused for a moment to think ". . . the tones at the keyboard the way he does.”

Frishberg the pianist has never been one to shout about Frishberg the singer. He will admit, though, that he gets the job done.

“I never try to sell my singing,” he laughed. “The songs are what I’m talking about. They’re what I’m putting across.

“My voice is erratic, since I very seldom sing unless I’m working. I never practice, I don’t even know how to warm up, so I don’t try to challenge my voice too much. Still, I seem to get across.”

Frishberg didn’t sing much until the early ‘70s, when he began demonstrating his own songs. Before then, even though he had been writing lyrics and tunes, he was mainly known as a jazz pianist. In Los Angeles, where he moved to work on a TV show (“The Funny Side,” which lasted one season), he wrote tunes and played in area bands such as Bill Berry’s L.A. Big Band. In the mid-'70s, he started his solo career and has been at it successfully ever since.

Does he feel like somewhat of an anachronism, writing and playing in a style that was in vogue about half a century ago?

“No, I see myself as someone who continues to thrive on what charmed me when I was a kid,” he said. “Count Basie, Johnny Mercer, Gilbert and Sullivan . . . ,’ he laughed at the mention of their names. “Bing Crosby, Benny Goodman--I’ve never really gotten over all that. For me, it’s like getting back in touch with the truth.”


David Frishberg plays Sunday at 3 p.m. in Founder’s Hall at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tickets: $18. Information: (714) 556-2787.