Many modern jazz fans consider the 1960s as the creative apogee of the music. The abundance of top-flight musicians, coupled with a near continuous stream of boundary breaking innovations, made for a creatively explosive combination. The downside to this artistic boon was that many high caliber conceptualists got lost in the deluge.
A case could easily be made for counting Don Friedman among this number, as his early '60s albums for Riverside offered some of the most ingenious variations on the piano trio format of the era. Sadly, they were largely overshadowed by more overtly provocative offerings of artists like Cecil Taylor, Thelonious Monk and Dave Brubeck. Careful listening to Friedman’s early albums reveals that his relegation to the fringes was completely undeserved. Rather than compromise his creativity, he teamed up with guitarist Atilla Zoller and decided to go even further out. The decision ultimately didn’t help his career, but it did result in some of the most adventurous piano-driven jazz of the decade.
Over the years Friedman’s remained active, and while his fame hasn’t risen much beyond the niche community that is creative improvised music, he’s sustained a remarkably high standard of quality in his music. Uniting with a crew of younger players for this latest outing, Friedman’s form sounds undiminished by nearly five decades in the jazz life. The quartet balances four originals with four thoughtfully chosen standards making for a program ripe with both the fresh and familiar. Levy’s “Positivity” gorgeously reflects the sentiment of its title in musical terms. Ferguson has an early shot at the spotlight and his strings practically sing in the crystalline sonics of the studio. Friedman adds delicate accents, eventually regaining the lead in a sparkling outpouring of chords. Ferguson’s fluid breaks beat a soothing path to an elegant recapitulation of the theme by Levy’s effervescent tenor.
The saxophonist sits out on “My Foolish Heart,” and his absence allows for even more intimate interplay between Friedman and his rhythm section mates. After peeling off lush scalar runs down his keyboard, the pianist lays out, leaving room for another contemplative pizzicato foray from Ferguson. Jobim’s “Desafinado” gains a minor harmonic facelift, but still retains its signature beat. Levy sails breezily through the changes, sounding at first slightly like Desmond might have if he had embraced the tenor horn. His tone later hardens, but his melodically infused lines retain relaxed buoyancy in phrasing above the counterpoint of his partners.
Friedman’s “Memory of Scotty,” dedicated his long departed colleague Scott LaFaro, pays balladic tribute to the bassist and acts as a cleverly conceived vehicle for Ferguson’s own strings, both arco and plucked. Bechet’s “Petite Fleur” finds Levy on uncredited soprano, in deference to the composer. His translucent tone on the straight horn fits snugly into the Latinized structures of the arrangement. Friedman’s graceful accompaniment and eventual solo further contributes to a feeling of reposeful calm. The upbeat rhythms of the pianist’s “Almost Everything” presage the session’s impending end, but the quartet still has space for a final stretch through regions of warmly voiced lyricism.
Sweeping accolades and fame may not be in the cards for Friedman, but based on the strengths of this session the situation doesn’t seem to matter much. He’ll keep doing what he does best, whether there’s a widespread audience or not. For that, listeners in the know should be grateful.
Positivity/ My Foolish Heart/ Desafinado/ Memory of Scotty/ Bye, Bye, Blackbird/ Petite Fleur/ Swans/
Don Friedman-piano; Jed Levy-tenor saxophone; Tim Ferguson-bass; Tony Jefferson-drums.
Recorded: April 2000.
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