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Joel Frahm's Musical Reunion

By Published: February 9, 2004

That's what I love him for, that he can just come up with those things and be so spontaneous yet so perfect in his choices. —Joel Frahm on Brad Mehldau

Joel Frahm's Don't Explain is just one of many reunions between the saxophonist and his high school classmate, pianist Brad Mehldau.

The recording was a natural next step after the two reunited for two concerts to raise money for the nationally-known music program at their alma mater, William H. Hall High School, in West Hartford, Conn.

"I asked Brad if he would be interested in doing a charity concert," said Frahm in a recent interview, "and he said, 'Yeah'. The first one seemed really successful and then we did another one. It just seemed really natural to play with him again."

Frahm and Mehldau had known each other for more than 13 years when the first of the two concerts was held. They were introduced shortly after Frahm and his family moved to West Hartford from Racine, Wis., in 1985.

Their meeting was "kind of just random," said Frahm. "[Mehldau's] best friend was this drummer named Bill Dobrow, who was selected by our principal at the time to show me around the school, which was kind of funny at the time because he took the opportunity to skip all of his classes."

Frahm first heard Mehldau play when after a month at his new school, he stopped into the auditorium during jazz choir rehersal and remembers "being transifixed" by the young pianist. Soon afterward, Dobrow introduced Frahm to Mehldau, and three began hanging out, jamming often together after school in the band room.

"We were kind of strange bedfellows ' he and Bill were a little hipper and more urbane than I was. I was sort of 'fresh off the farm' coming from Wisconsin," said Frahm. "I hadn't really been introduced to a lot of music and those were the first few guys I started to listening to records with. We would play impromptu free jazz sessions together ' we didn't really know what we were doing. As we discovered the history of jazz together listening to Charlie Parker and Coltrane and that sort of stuff, that was the first Petri dish for us."

Their first sessions together included standards from the requisite Real Book , but they also experimented a bit, said Frahm. "We'd play some of the standards that we knew, but a lot of the time Brad would kind of vamp out ' he was really into Keith Jarrett and that kind of stuff, so he would try to approximate that ... and so he would come up with these harmonic pads to play over.

"He was just so good, and so fluent even before he had any bebop vocabulary. He would just kind of generate these modal vamps and we would play over that and just see how whacked out we could make it. I think we fancied ourselves as sort of these avant-garde guys back in those days, but I'm not sure we really knew what we were doing. (Laughs) We were just trying to have fun and figure out different odd ways to play, I think," recalled Frahm.

While most of his early development in improvisation came from those improptu sessions, Frahm was also a member of the school's jazz big band.

"There were a lot of great students in the band around me. There was a tenor player named Pat Zimmerli who is now more of a 21st-century composer, I guess you could call him," remembered Frahm. "He was a great jazz tenor player at the time, and he had subsumed many influences and he could really play, and so he was the first person to really inspire me in a personal way to play jazz."

Membership in that ensemble also led to a watershed event in Frahm's life.

"Because I had just made it into the band and they could see that I was excited and pretty dedicated about it, the whole band chipped in and bought me six LP's for my sixteenth birthday. Among them were Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers Thermo , and Ready For Freddie , the Freddie Hubbard record with Wayne Shorter, Horace Silver's Sterling Silver , Eastern Rebellion [Vol.] 2 by the Cedar Walton Trio with Bob Berg, and a Prestige two-fer of Miles Davis, Green Haze ," Frahm said. "I listened to them to death and it really changed my life because I became so obsessed with the solos and the sounds on these LPs. ... That was really my entre [into jazz]."

Like many jazz musicians, especially saxophonists, Charlie Parker was an influence on Frahm, and in Joel's case, a revelatory one.

"I remember going to the library and picking up some compilation of Bird that had a lot of the solos that were transcribed for the Charlie Parker Omnibook , which was an educational book with all of his transcriptions. I'd been reading out of it, and hadn't really understood," said Frahm.

"I remember laying on my bed about fifteen or sixteen and listening to a cassette from the library on my Walkman and Bird came on playing 'Kim' which is a pretty famous improvisation of his and pretty quick, and it was like lightning struck for me. It was so immediate and so transforming to hear that ' I can't really describe it. It was really the closest thing to a religious experience or revelation that I ever had. Because to hear that sound and put it together with concepts that I was trying to grasp was really totally transforming and revolutionized everything for me."

Frahm and Mehldau became avid record collectors, and would spend what little money they made on gigs on jazz LPs. Their high school days coincided with the rediscovery of acoustic jazz in the mid-1980's, so Frahm's listening habits included both fusion records and classic bop.

"I think about when I first started listening and it really was this strange, eclectic brew of stuff ' I was listening to Return to Forever along side Steps Ahead along side Bird along side Wayne Shorter's classic Blue Note stuff," said Frahm.

After Frahm and Mehldau graduated from high school, opportunities to play together came infrequently. Frahm graduated from The Manhattan School of Music, was accepted into Betty Carter's rigorous Jazz Ahead workshop, and worked with Maynard Ferguson, Larry Goldings, and the Village Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. Frahm was also a 1996 Thelonious Monk competition semi-finalist.

Frahm remembered one time they did get together as being particularly special.

"Brad played a gig, actually a really cool gig, maybe 1992 or 93, at [New York City jazz club] Visiones when it was still open, I had a quartet gig down there with him and [bassist] Duane Burno and [drummer] Greg Hutchinson, which was really fun," said Frahm. "It was the first time that he had played with me that I started to hear hints of his new concepts. He had started to play some new substitutions that led him to his concepts with his new trio with Larry Grenadier and Jorge Rossi."

The two would only gig four or five other times in the next decade until their reunion duo concerts.

After the second of their fundraisers, a newspaper critic suggested that they should record as a duo, and Frahm agreed. "I was in the middle of this record deal with Palmetto and I said, 'Yeah, this seems like a good idea.' It was sort of just a natural progression. It wasn't like I had any grand vision or concept for doing it. I just wanted to pick tunes that we both knew and then let both of us go. Because we always play so well with each other and Brad creates these great soundscapes to improvise in. And he really deconstructs standards in a really cool way."

In December 2001, Frahm and Mehldau headed to Bucks County, Pa., to record his third album for Palmetto at the label's in-house studio, Maggie's Farm, with label owner, engineer, producer, and guitarist Matt Balitsaris.

"It's such a beautiful, bucolic setting. Going out there is always such a blast because you can record there and then go out with the trees for a while. That actually to me has a lot to do with the vibe out there," said Frahm. "When we went out there to record it was really nice, because it was just me and Brad and Matt ' there weren't a lot of distractions. The thing about working out there, I think the real advantage is just that sense of lack of pressure. I don't get that studio feeling that I get sometimes in New York when I go in to do a record. Everyone's a little on edge to get all the takes they want in. Going out there always seems like more of an experience and less of a job."

Frahm added, "Matt always puts me at ease, too. He knows how to guide you gently but he doesn't tell you what to do. ... That kind of producing is cool ' it lets you have direction, but at the same time it's not slamming you over the head with someone's idea. I've been in a lot of sessions with producers ' who I won't mention ' where they'll have dumb ideas, and they'll say, 'Hey, lets try this', and 'Let's try this, baby,' and let's get high in the meantime, but Matt has such a great omniscient sense of what makes an album good, and I really trust him."

Frahm said he was really proud that most of the recording session was unplanned. "We opened up a bottle of wine and went. That was pretty much it," he said.

"There was one thing ' Brad's arrangement of [Lennon and McCartney's] 'Mother Nature's Son' is one that he worked out ahead of time and I previously had heard him play, and that was one I was interested in playing with him." The track is one of three in which Frahm is on soprano, rather than tenor, saxophone.

Two of the most interesting songs on Don't Explain are also among Frahm's favorite moments on the album; the slower, funky take on Sonny Rollins' "Oleo" brings new life to that standard, while the first of two versions of Monk's "Round Midnight", "Round Midnight #3", begins and ends with a tenor vamp by Frahm that only obliquely hints at the tune's familiar melody.

"There's a moment at the end of ['Round Midnight #3'] where I pick up this vamp again that I started out the tune with that's sort of the underpinning of the whole performance and it gets pretty gentle at the end," explained Frahm. "I play this ending kind of vamp as sort of a retrograde of the first statement that I made and he lets it go ' he lets me have the space to go through it three or four times ' and all of the sudden, he just plays the gentlest substitution, it's just a little minor chord, and it's one of my favorite moments on the record, because it's so gentle and so surprising at the same time.

"He was just listening so hard that he found something that I never would have thought of, but that made that moment much more intense than if he had just played the song. And that's what I love him for, that he can just come up with those things and be so spontaneous yet so perfect in his choices."

Don't Explain is dedicated to the memory of tenor and soprano saxophonist Bob Berg, who was not only a major influence on the young Frahm, but also an inspiration to him much more recently. Berg died in a tragic automobile accident near his Long Island home in December, 2002. He was 51.

"A couple of years before [Bob's death], I was having a tough time," Frahm recalled. "I was pretty depressed and pretty uninspired musically, and I remember coming home one night and just being bummed out and turning on my e-mail. And I got this e-mail saying, 'Hey man, I don't think we've ever met, but I was driving in my car and this minor blues your were playing on your record The Navigator came on. I had to pull over my car and listen to the whole thing. It's so great to hear some great stuff on the radio ...', and it was Bob Berg.

"He found my name on the Internet and sent me this note. And I was so glad I e-mailed him back, because it was only a few months later that he was gone. I told him how much he meant to me as a kid, listening to his records with Cedar Walton, listening to a lot the stuff he had done, his solo records with Tom Harrell. So I wrote him this long e-mail and he got back to me. I think he was really surprised and touched. So I wanted to dedicate this to him. I think it's really unusual for a guy who's been around and who's a pretty established musician to take the time out to just get in touch with someone who they've never met just because they dig their stuff," said Frahm.

Frahm and Berg were planning on hanging out a gig together, but sadly, Berg passed on before they had a chance to meet. "The few times I have gotten to play with my idols, it's just been so electric," said an enthused Frahm. You get so giddy about it that sometimes I can't even play. But it is fun, I really enjoy meeting those people and hanging out with them."

To celebrate the release of Don't Explain , Frahm and Mehldau played a three-night stand at New York's Jazz Standard in January as part of a week-long Palmetto Records showcase.

Frahm is now on a month-long tour with Jane Monheit, with whom he's toured and recorded for the past few years, while Mehldau begins his own tour in Europe later this month supporting his own new Warner Bros. release.

On future performances with Mehldau, Frahm said, "I'm keeping my fingers crossed."



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