© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
Pianist Don Friedman died on June 30, 2016.
The editorial staff at JazzProfiles has fond memories of the four LP’s he did for Riverside Records in the mid-1960s including A Day in the City, Circle Waltz, Flashback and Dreams and Explorations which featured the talents of guitarist Attila Zoller, bassist Chuck Israels, and drummer Pete LaRoca, among others.
His Hot Knepper and Pepper which finds him in the company of trombonist Jimmy Knepper and baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams and his solo piano ventures - I Hear A Rhapsody and At Maybeck Recital Hall - are also among our favorite recordings.
The editorial staff thought that it would be nice to remember Don on these pages with the following article by Don Nelson which featured in Down Beat magazine in 1964 during the early years of Don Friedman’s career in Jazz.
“The talk at Friedman's place turned to recognition of jazz musicians, The host sat on his piano bench and carefully dusted a new but growing paunch with his fingertips.
"Well," he observed with a smile—followed by a laugh, "if I don't win that New Star award soon, I'll be too old to care.”
The laugh clearly showed it wasn't worrying him. But if perhaps it had, the Aug. 13 edition of Down Beat carried the news that the International Jazz Critics Poll had named Friedman top man in the wider-recognition piano category. He could stop worrying. And at 29, he isn't too old to carry it,
But why the delay in recognition? Did the critics think other players more deserving? There are many fine pianists around, and it isn't difficult to get lost in the shuffle. A possible explanation.
ln Friedman's case, the delay is a bit harder to understand. Certainly, such critical mal de memory does not operate among his fellow musicians. The San Francisco-born pianist works more steadily than most jazzmen - and at playing jazz, not at the transcription or studio work that provides extensive moonlighting opportunities for many jazz musicians. He is one of the few white musicians whom Negro players seem to have no hesitancy in hiring. His very range of musical sidemanship — invitations to work with such differing minds as Herbie Mann, Harry Edison, Don Ellis, and Jimmy Giuffre — suggests the high.repute in which lie is held.
A less patent factor in this delayed recognition may be his ' supposed debt to Bill Evans.
"Friedman? Yeah, he plays good. Sounds like Bill Evans.”
Then talk promptly switches to Evans and his influence on Jazz pianists.
This rather damn-with-faint-praise dismissal may have a modicum of justification; but anyone who has glued his ears to Friedman’s recent records or heard him in person must conclude - with one reservation — that he sounds no more like Evans than does, say. Hank Jones.
The reservation concerns Friedman's approach to a ballad. He agrees that his approach is lyric and romantic, like Evans'. He says further that Evans' playing has deeply impressed him. Beyond this he sees little similarity in their playing. And rightly so, for the evidence is on record -and live, too— that in his choice of harmonics and rhythmic patterns, Friedman's IOU to Evans is for small change only.
Furthermore, Friedman differs philosophically from Evans in regard to attitude toward music. Evans has deplored an over-intense involvement with music, fearing too complete a commitment to music, to the exclusion of other interests, would pervert the art and the artist. A whole man, he said, should be able to function in a whole world.
Friedman might not disagree specifically, but his outlook is more optimistic.
"I'm wrapped up in music, but I don't fear being that way," he said. "I feel I can become more and more interested in music every day. I think that my discoveries in music will force me to learn more about other things. A stimulated interest can become interested in various subjects."
A part of this wrapping — a substantial part — is practice.
"I get more enjoyment out of practicing than I ever did before because I've begun to accept it as part of my life. I've been playing since I was 5, and by the time I reached 16 I was sick of both piano and practice, and I stopped playing. Then I got with jazz, and the picture changed. Now I look forward to playing and figuring things out.
"I practice mainly two types of music — jazz and classical. Classical for my hands, not so that I'll have more technique in jazz. Classical music gives me a certain feeling in my hands that I dig. I have no practice schedule. But there is a point in every day when I feel like getting to the piano. I usually have something in mind that I want to look into. I start off and go on from there."
Friedman's practice hall is one of three first-floor rooms he rents in a tenement on Manhattan's upper east side. From the entrance, his apartment door is 30 feet down a dark, grimy hallway whose stale odor is occasionally relieved by the fragrance of freshly baked bread, which osmosed through the walls from a bakery next door. He lives there cozily by himself, preparing for the great things to come.
He weighs, in condition, 145 pounds. He is not now in condition, although he would probably deny this and explain his paunch is the result of a clean and pure life during the last couple of years.
Recently, he shaved off a mustache he considered a stylish decoration. He just got tired of it, but it was great while it lasted.
"Anyway," he observed, "I only grew it as a test to see if I could grow one. When it appeared, I liked it. My father had a mustache when I was a kid, so I guess I was always envious of the fact that he had one and I didn't and couldn't."
Thus the Friedman urge to overcome keeps revealing itself.
His musical problems are overcome — at least the attempt is made — in his living room, which contains a sagging sofa, a television set, a few books, and a scarred upright piano. There, overlooking a barren backyard that is the playground of his landlady's two rawboned cats, he invites his hand and brain to grapple with unanswered questions.
OUTSIDE, by the front door, a mailbox nameplate identifies the source of the sounds he makes as the Friedman-LaFaro apartment. The LaFaro is Scott, the muse-touched young bassist who died in an auto accident three years ago. The two, close friends, shared these quarters for about a year after LaFaro had arrived from Los Angeles. Friedman has never bothered to take the nameplate down.
"I just wanted Scotty's name up somewhere," he said.
With these two fertile imaginations in close communication, the question arises as to whether either exercised any influence on the other. "Influence" is, of course, a term indispensable to the critical lexicon, and hardly an article can be written without it. Friedman took the question with good grace, however. His answer was that he really couldn't be certain.
"I do know that I picked up on his way of voicing chords," Friedman said. "He had a particularly beautiful way of voicing half-diminished chords. Other than that, I don't know. I do feel — although again I don't know — that in the last part of his life he might have been influenced by my thinking too. I know he got very interested in Schoenberg, Bartok, and Berg, things he wasn't into before. But I really don't know how much of a part I played in his thinking in this direction."
The pianist will also, not surprisingly, remark of saxophonists Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, and Charlie Parker in his work, primarily in the area of harmony.
"I dig the way they break up intervals," Friedman said. "They have ways of playing changes that make new things possible. I once heard Coltrane resolve a 2-5-1 in some original of his. I never heard anybody do this before, and I tried to incorporate it into my playing."
Of course, in working it out, it became less Coltrane and more Friedman. A creator always will use an idea, not be used by it. He does not copy, he transfigures.
Friedman also digs players such as Stan Getz, Miles Davis, Lee Konitz, and Lennie Tristano for their ability to build a song.
"The biggest thing I learned from studying composition," he said, "was that you could take a few notes or an idea, which consists of a rhythmic pattern, a certain series of chords, or certain intervals, and develop a whole section of a piece or a whole piece. That's what makes the great musician—the ability to build steadily to a climax, relax, then do it again and have it all hang together as one piece, as one song."
RIGHT NOW, Friedman is going through a stage that some might call musical schizophrenia. He would deny that the term is appropriate and hold that music is music, or jazz is jazz, and that there is no contradiction between playing free-form music and music with traditional chord changes and enjoying both equally. In fact, he claims that playing free-form music with such as Jimmy Giuffre and Don Ellis has enhanced his command of ideas and techniques in "traditional" jazz.
His own view vis-a-vis the direction his playing is taking is equivocal.
"I don't know yet which way I'm traveling," he said. "I sincerely enjoy playing both types of jazz. I dig playing with Herbie Mann just as much as I do with Jimmy Giuffre. As long as I get that feeling that playing jazz gives you, it doesn't make much difference which way I get it."
Possibly. But an audit of Friedman's four albums for Riverside—the last, Dreams, Explorations, and Episodes, was not released before the company went out of business—reveals an increasing use of nonchordal or free-form techniques. His first LP — A Day in the City — is built entirely on traditional structures, as is his second, Circle Waltz. But Flashback, the third, contains two free-form pieces, while Dreams and Explorations offers four. Friedman discounts these "statistics."
"Maybe," he said, but added, "Anyway, I'm not at the stage yet where I can consider discarding the traditional system. Frankly, I don't know if I ever will."
There is no doubt, however, that free-form music was directly responsible for Friedman's development of The System, a method designed to enable the pianist to develop his musical capacities to the fullest. But it almost defies lucid explanation in precise terms. It is ... well... a way of concentrating all one's energies on the solution of a particular question. More.
It treats of the problem, when playing, of putting certain notes in certain places at certain times so that everything fits just right.
Further, The System's ingredients form a part of an overall attack on a problem more and more jazz musicians may come to face. Friedman said:
"My system is my solution to the problems which develop when a jazz musician, who has been playing jazz based on the traditional chord scheme, suddenly finds himself faced with a non-chordal, free-form music. The system developed as I tried to find a way to play the new music."
At first, Friedman says, he more or less groped his way in free-form music, even though "I could improvise at 5, and I didn't know a damn thing about chords then."
His first non-chordal flight was, perhaps oddly, on a public bandstand while playing a song based on usual chord progressions.
"I was in the middle of a tune and suddenly discarded the frame of the tune altogether and started improvising," he said.
"I evolve my melodic ideas from classical music and try to develop them in a compositional way. But rhythmically I rely entirely on my jazz experience."
Currently, his jazz experience is much concerned with getting a quartet off the ground, the quartet that made the Dreams album. His partners are another new poll winner, guitarist Attila Zoller, bassist Dick Kniss, and drummer Dick Berk. Together they are investigating — mostly at home, Friedman admits ruefully — more and more the uncharted territory of free-form ideas.
A key goal of The System is, along with the solution of problems posed by free-form music, to "conscious-ize" his intuition. Like other superior musicians, Friedman can improvise intuitively, but he wants more than that.
"The finest musicians have been able to take fragments and build compositions from them," he said. "I don't know whether they've done it consciously or unconsciously, but there it is. I know I did it intuitively at first and then consciously.
My greatest feeling comes from doing something intuitively and realizing it consciously at the same time."
What all this system business may amount to, however, is a recasting of a familiar story into a new mold: the story of an artist's creativity discovering itself constantly, perhaps expressed at first unconsciously but then consciously as the artist becomes aware of a new idea or feeling and tries to attain control of expression so that he can say what he wishes in just the way he wishes. Friedman appears able to do this with increasing skill. System schmystem.”