JVC Festival Offers Night of Stinging Songs
Dave Frishberg and Bob Dorough occupy a unique place in US culture: they're the musical bards of the jazz-oriented lexophiles, that aging hip cohort who still find witty conversation the most provocative kind of foreplay. And whereas the English-speaking world was once inhabited by such song-lyric giants as Cole Porter, Frank Loesser, Yip Harburg, Ogden Nash, Ira Gershwin, Hoagy Carmichael and that dean of verbal extravagance Noel Coward, now only Frishberg and Dorough remain on the horizon. The concert in the 600-plus-seat Kaye Auditorium at Hunter College, was part of the New York JVC Jazz Festival.
As lyricists Frishberg and Dorough are every bit as good as their late predecessors, and go far beyond them in musical sophistication. Both are accomplished jazz pianists, rooted in bebop, and between them, Frishberg is a true master. The irony, therefore, is often just as pervasive in the music as it is in their lyricsthe audience audibly caught a number of purely instrumental "bons mots." Joined with the verbal precision that involves internal and bisyllabic rhyme, the effect is irresistable. For example, in his famous "Do You Miss New York," a love-hate reminiscence on the Big Apple among exiles in L.A., the biggest laugh comes with the line "And did you trade the whole parade for a pair of parking places?" (rhyming with "faces"). As for irony, he may have reached his peak in the song "Living in L. A." when describing the frustration of driving there as pushing him to want to put in a call to Rush Limbaugh, a perfect hit for this audience, for whom there could be no clearer evidence of losing one's mind.
Both paid their respects to Hoagy Carmichael, that words-and-music master who described himself as "a pianist who also sings," the category that both Frishberg and Dorough embrace, sparing them comparisons to the likes of Tony Bennett or Mel Torme, and keeping expectations of vocal quality low. Frishberg, nonetheless, has a smooth, very identifiable vocal style, with the pleasing modulation of (dare I say it?) Ronald Reagan, though with a much wider range of expression (when I mentioned to Frishberg after the show that if he ever wanted to do a Reagan parody he was well-equipped, he grimaced). He claims his best seller is the non-ironic, rather sentimental "You Are There," a song about missing someone, which, though clever is hardly funny, and carried off with great feeling.
In contrast, Dorough's vocal ability to hit pitches is questionable. His singing is often hardly more than grunting in rhythm. He even dared scat, but it was more like a drum solo. But he exudes so much clowning enthusiasm and boyish charmgangling about the stage with his long pony-tail and Arkansas twangthat it doesn't matter. He makes his point and you hear the melody. You'd certainly never guess he's 77 years old.
Frishberg, in contrast (age 68), was borderline dour in demeanor. His stage presence ranged from the avuncular to the dyspeptic, all of which only served to underline his humor. Not that this seemed like an intentional put-on. That's just Frishberg, apparently troubled with issues that don't seem to concern the ebullient Dorough. They were perfect foils, as their opening title song (and new duo CD) stressed: "Who's on First?" milking the double-entendre of the old Abbott and Costello gag with a friendly competitiveness about who would perform the first solo set.
And their famous collaboration? Before their current CD it amounted to just one song: the brilliant 1965 "I'm Hip," their sendup of bebop culture. To introduce it they confessed that they had been drawn together in New York at that time by their similar talents and interests, figuring they'd be the next Rogers and Hammerstein, Comden and Green, Lerner and Lowe.... But after that one success they had to go their separate ways.
Dorough took the first verse and Frishberg the (somewhat funnier) second (the words are Frishberg's, the music Dorough's), including that wonderful evocation of the desparately clueless jazz groupie: "Now I'm deep into Zen/Meditation and macrobiotics/And as soon as I can/I intend to get into narcotics."
Dorough's best moments came with two of his originals: one consisted of a whimsical but apposite series of musical settings to the Webster's Collegiate Dictionary's five definitions of "Love;" the other "Health Food Store" has the singer abjuring drugs in favor of desparately sought "fixes" for wheat germ, lecithin and soy milk.