Bernie Kaplan, a famous entertainment lawyer in London used to tell people that Dave Frishberg’s "My Attorney, Bernie" was written for him. When Kaplan died, they played the sardonic little tune at his funeral, and someone later remarked to the composer, "It’s too bad about Bernie, isn’t it?"
But Dave Frishberg just thought it was a nice, silly little rhyme, and had never met Kaplan. We learned all this on September 7th at the Jazz Spot, where Frishberg played to a house full of fans. The evening was filled with silly rhymes, but was also heavy with unintentional irony.
Frishberg inevitably invites comparison with another piano-playing showman, Steve Allen. They share a frolicking stop-and-start piano-playing style and a voice that is half-speaking, half-singing; Frishberg, however, is far more entertaining and sincere in his humor. His subjects generally steer clear of the political, ranging instead from romantic to silly to absurd. And while Allen may have more personal fame, every schoolkid in the country knows Frishberg’s tune "Conjunction, Junction".
Unfortunately, Frishberg was both hoarse and forgetful throughout the evening. He may have been feeling under the weather, as his latest live Blue Note recording (October 2000) betrays none of these difficulties. But Frishberg had additional challenges
His playing and singing are often out of sync, especially if it’s a new verse ("The Ballad of Ralph Nader"). His ballads are sad-not for content but lack of proper breath support-especially on long notes ("You Are There"). While his compositions rarely stray from the major mode in common time, some the low notes he wrote for himself were outside his own range ("Zanzibar"). And he over-explained the forced lyrics he had set to a perfectly cute melody ("Saratoga Springs"). Worst of all, he peaked early, starting with his three funniest tunes.
Most adult musicians can’t get away with this much amateurism, but for this affable, absent-minded composer it seemed entirely forgivable - almost part of his act. In a song about needing sleep ("Z’s"), he blanked out on the lyrics but recovered with audience prompting. (A vocal front-row contingent knew the words better than the composer.) Introducing "What Did I Forget?" Frishberg told us about lending a hurried transcription of the piece to a singer for her new album-then worrying she’s going to sing it wrong since he forgot to flat a crucial note.
When the audience asked for an encore, Frishberg waded into another favorite ("I’m Hip"), then ironically (but apparently not on purpose), forgot the part entirely and had to pull out the sheet music-which was in the wrong key. He read it through to the finish, squinting over his spectacles, then said a firm "Good Night."
So what is it, then, that makes Frishberg so charming?
He’s "arguably the top living lyricist," says jazz critic Scott Yanow, and I’d agree. The opening three numbers had everyone in hysterics. I wish I could remember every line, but they came too fast and furious and I was too busy laughing and wiping tears from my eyes to write them down. "My Attorney, Bernie" is every good lawyer joke rolled into one. "Quality Time" features a hilarious commentary on modern couples who pencil each other in between mobile-phone calls and business trips.
"Spare Us Another Song About Paris," whose title alone was enough to start me chuckling, kept the house roaring. The clever piece-filled with one wincing rhyme after another-pokes fun at its own clichéd subject matter, making the clichés in the song that followed ("Too Long in L.A.") all the more inexplicable. But even this piece was redeemed when the piano tremolos and dissonant chords clearly evoked the noise and frenzy of New York.
Frishberg’s songs are more entertaining live than on recording for the same reason that standup comedy is funnier live - you get to participate in the audience’s reaction. A live performance in this case also lets you observe first-hand how Frishberg times his delivery to that sweet spot just before the audience runs out of patience. But if you can’t catch him live, do look for Dave Frishberg’s two new albums out this fall on the Arbors Label.