Somewhat like Nat King Cole, whose “unforgettable” vocal stylings made him wealthy and famous but changed him from a Jazz pianist to a popular entertainer, Dave Frishberg’s virtuosity as a pianist has been overshadowed by other concerns, namely his well–known talents as a singer / songwriter whose hip lyrics always leave one smiling knowingly and nodding his / her head in appreciation. So a couple of decades have passed since Frishberg, once best known as the house pianist at New York’s Half Note cafe, where he accompanied many of Jazz’s brightest stars in the ’60s and early ’70s, last recorded an album that showcases his piano playing. Ten of the fourteen selections on By Himself
feature Frishberg’s solo piano; the others (“I Want to Be a Sideman,” “Saratoga Hunch,” “Can’t Take You Nowhere,” “I Could Care Less”) are vocals — with lyrics, of course, by Frishberg (“Care Less” was co–authored with kindred spirit Bob Dorough). Make no mistake, Frishberg is a gifted pianist, but he’s fortunate to have those other talents to fall back on. What I mean is, when he’s writing and singing he’s unmistakably Dave Frishberg; when he’s playing he could be any one of hundreds, if not thousands, of similarly well–endowed keyboard artists. There’s nothing in his competent but otherwise unremarkable approach to the piano that screams “Frishberg” and makes him stand out in an already overcrowded arena. For that reason, good as his playing is, it’s the vocals that leave the strongest impression on By Himself.
Frishberg is undoubtedly sharp enough to realize that, which may be why he hasn’t recorded a “piano” album in so many years — and why he chose to include some of his inimitable songs with words on this one. As a change of pace for Frishberg fans, this is creditable; as an album of solo piano it’s no better or worse than many others that are crammed into the Jazz bins at record stores across the country.