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Interview: Don Friedman (Part 2)

SOURCE: Published: 2009-09-24
Don Friedman Don Friedman was born and raised on the West Coast but in the late 1950s he became one of a handful of California jazz musicians who relocated to the East Coast. When he arrived in New York in 1957, Don found an apartment and roomed with bassist Scott LaFaro, whom he already had known from the West Coast. Don played clubs in the city, and after a few years came to the attention of producer Orrin Keepnews at Riverside Records. Orrin recorded Don on four albums, each a little different stylistically than the next. The last one, Dreams and Explorations, was a free jazz album with guitarist Attila Zoller. The recording became a game-changer for Don, who began incorporating free jazz touches in most of his recordings going forward.

Interestingly, these free jazz touches were almost self-imposed. Don was aware he was often being compared to Bill Evans [pictured]. So to stand out, he distinguished his style by meshing his European training, bop roots and free-jazz feel. The result is a fascinating combination of a highly skilled pianist in control and, at the same time, wildly adventurous, searching for a new sound.

In Part 2 of my interview with Don, the legendary pianist talks about pianist Bill Evans, LaFaro's affinity for driving fast, the relationship between Evans and LaFaro, recording for Orrin Keepnews, embracing free jazz, and the album he recorded that he favors most:

JazzWax: Did you and Bill ever meet?
Don Friedman:
I used to go to the Village Vanguard to hear Bill, [bassist] Scotty [LaFaro, pictured] and [drummer] Paul Motian. Bill was nice guy, very quiet. We didn't have a lot to say, though. One night I subbed for him. His trio was playing at the Jazz Gallery in the East Village. Scott called me to come in and sub because Bill had gotten sick a couple of nights.

JW: What did you think of Evans?
DF: I admired his playing. He had a great harmonic sense and his voicings were beautiful. But his right-hand lines weren't that interesting to me.

JW: How is your right hand different?
DF: I stretch the notes. Bill played more within the chords. I find he's more conservative and I take more chances. But I always loved his chordal stuff. I tried to copy what he was doing there and include it in some of my playing. In fact, I changed some of my playing in my left hand when I first heard him.

JW: How so?
DF: When I started playing, I listened to Bud Powell and Red Garland. They had a root-oriented left hand, using a lot of inversions when voicing chords. Bill was doing things that were completely different, building drama rather than just keeping time.

JW: As someone who has worked with many bassists, what's your take on LaFaro?
DF: Scotty was able to relate to what I was doing. Many bass players did not listen as carefully as he did. Jazz is ear music--more than any other form. You have to hear what the other players are doing. In most cases you don't have written notes to play. You just have sounds. If you're a classical musician, you're playing notes that were written for you. Of course, you have to listen. But with jazz, you have to hear what you and what other guys are doing. Your ears have to be wide open. I felt that Scott had those kinds of ears, more so than most other bassists.

JW: Do you know anything about LaFaro's fatal auto accident in upstate New York on July 6, 1961?
DF: Nothing more than what has been written. But having driven many times with Scotty, I know that he liked to put the pedal to the metal. He was young and liked speed, and there were no seat belts back in those days. He had gone to a party up in Geneva, N.Y., and there was ice on the road. He lost control of the car and crashed, killing himself and a friend who was in the car with him. So sad. [Pictured: LaFaro vehicle after colliding with a tree]

JW: What was Evans' bond with LaFaro?
DF: Bill was tremendously impressed with Scotty. Bill tended to have a depressed personality. Scotty was the total opposite. He was so full of joie de vivre. He lived life to the hilt. He was Mr. Positive about everything. Scott also knew how to take control of a situation. Since he was a positive person, he had a strong personality. I think Bill felt emotionally dependent on him.

JW: Was LaFaro blunt with Evans?
DF: Scotty had no fear or hesitation to tell Bill that he was a jerk for getting hooked on drugs. They had a lot of fights about that.

JW: Do you miss LaFaro?
DF: When I think about Scotty disappearing so soon, it's a terrible tragedy. It's all so long ago. What I wish is that Scott was around today so we could play together now. I feel I've come a long way in 50 years, or I'd like to think so [laughs].

JW: How did your first Riverside album, A Day in the City, come about?
DF: I was studying composition around that time. I wanted to learn to compose. One of the class assignments was to write a theme and variations on a folk song. So I did. I composed a piece for piano. Around the same time, I was friends with bassist Chuck Israels and drummer Joe Hunt. We used to get together at my apartment to jam. Joe was recording with George Russell at the time and knew producer Orrin Keepnews at Riverside. Joe told Orrin about me. Orrin was looking for a pianist with original material.

JW: How was Orrin to work with?
DF: Orrin [pictured] knew his stuff, but I never felt completely comfortable around him. He wasn't very encouraging and never really made me feel qualified to be there. But in all fairness, it was probably my own insecurity. Back then, if I didn't get complete confirmation of my abilities, I felt uncomfortable. He also was a brusque guy, which could be tough. We did make four recordings together, and all received high praise from Down Beat. My relationship with Riverside fizzled when the label started to go under in the mid-1960s.

JW: You recorded free jazz with guitarist Attila Zoller starting in 1964, yes?
DF: Zoller [pictured] was a close friend of mine. We had first met in 1959. We started playing together with Herbie Mann. We started experimenting with free jazz and soon recorded Dreams and Explorations in 1964 for Riverside.

JW: Where did your interest in free jazz come from?
DF: I was very interested in free playing when I studied composition in contemporary classical music. I loved the atonal sounds that I had heard. In free jazz, you can emulate those sounds. You can't do that when playing chord changes. With free jazz, you don't have to worry about the key or a steady beat. That's what drew me to it.

JW: But from the listener's standpoint, that can sound a little self-centered.
DF: That's probably true [laughs]. But so is jazz in general for people who don't know anything about the music. Some free jazz is fascinating, but I've heard plenty that's total garbage.

JW: How would one tell the difference?
DF: [Laughs] Very funny. That's a good question. If you hear jazz musicians who have a background in traditional jazz play free jazz, you'll hear that they approach it in a different way. You can hear the difference, just as you can see the difference between someone just throwing paint at a canvas and Jackson Pollock, for example. Someone who has studied can't help but deliver form, content and composition, even in free jazz. Today, I find much of the free jazz to be solely percussive.

JW: Looking back, how do you view free jazz now?
DF: It still has a lot of value. The problem for me now is that I don't have someone I can work with in the free-jazz space. I could get into it again if I had the right person. Attila was really into that. The way we performed the music was free, but we wrote pieces and improvised off of them. We played off of each other. [Pictured: Don Friedman]

JW: What's your favorite Don Friedman album?
DF: Probably Waltz for Marilyn. I love how it came together.

JW: Looking back on your career, anything you'd do different?
DF: I don't know. I've been tremendously fortunate. I've had great experiences and met all kinds of people. I've always done something that I love to do, which is play piano and jazz. At this point in my life, in the last several years, I think I've been the best I've ever been.

JazzWax tracks: Two of my favorite later-period Don Friedman albums are Days of Wine and Roses (1995) and Waltz for Marilyn (2007). Days of Wine and Roses was recorded in Milan, Italy, with Marco Ricci on bass and Giampiero Prima on drums. The CD features one gorgeous standard after the next, including one of the most inventive treatments of Body and Soul. The emphasis is on bop. Waltz for Marilyn is named for the composition Don wrote for his wife. The album features guitarist Peter Bernstein, bassist Martin Wind and drummer Tony Jefferson. Don's piano with a guitar is magic, and this album has touches of his earlier recordings with Zoller.

Days of Wine and Roses is available as a download at Amazon here. Waltz for Marilyn is available as a download at Amazon here.

JazzWax clip: Here's Don playing Bill Evans' Turn Out the Stars in 2003...


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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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