Some might say pianist/vocalist Dave Frishberg is a bit of an anachronism. A quirky, 73-year-old songwriter who rambles on about baseball, boxing, betting and Bernie (his attorney) ad nauseum? Sure. But oh, what beautiful bathos he creates on his latest release, Dave Frishberg at the Jazz Bakery: Retromania. On these live L.A. recording sessions (May 12-15, 2005), Frishberg "examines his ‘pathological involvement’ with sports heroes of yesteryear." While Frishberg’s voice is an acquired taste, his penchant for the witty, prosaic, and sardonic ironies in life are not.
Retromania could be retitled The Songs That Almost Went Unrecorded. The 66-minute CD does contain old standbys such as "My Attorney Bernie," and "Van Lingle Mungo," a song containing a list of old-time ballplayers, which generated a surprise hit for Frishberg in 1968. It also has "Walkin’ On Wall Street," his favorite Schoolhouse Rock offering. (He also composed the famous "Just a Bill.") However, in this set, the magic really happens when Frishberg sinks into "The Dear Departed Past" and reels off six other tunes from his never-produced musical The Catbird Seat. Frishberg explains in running commentary between songs that The Catbird Seat is about a fictitious time traveler, Hal Chase, who walks smack into the turbulent world of the 1919 Black Sox scandal.
It’s easy to imagine Frishberg’s idiosyncratic, narrative songs translating well to the stage. As a Music Theatre International (MTI) artist, Frishberg has contributed to the aforementioned Schoolhouse musical series and wrote a tune, "What Did I Forget?", for the 1996 recording of Secrets Every Smart Traveler Should Know. A clever line from the song is "You can count on me to lose the very thing I’ll need to find before this trip is through."
In "The Dear Departed Past," Chase sings, "Does my antiquarian brain contain imaginary memories of golden days?" Certainly Frishberg’s does. And the listener can’t help but enjoy the droll, reminiscent musings of the West Coast’s version of Randy Newman. He has the uncanny ability to make the listener romantically yearn for a time and place previously unknown to him. Frishberg, and Retromania for that matter, may not be the average jazzoid’s cup of tea, but he is unequivocally one of America’s greatest, yet unacclaimed, working jazz storytellers, who continues to add to the American song book. Frishberg might say, "All those whose ghostly voices still issue from the annals of jazz history have already died off. But here I am, so let’s share a laugh, and let me tell you about the good ol' days. Boy, do I hate the designated hitter..."