Randy Porter Trio: Porter Plays Frishberg: Unsung

Paul Rauch By

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Randy Porter Trio: Porter Plays Frishberg: Unsung
Pianist/composer/lyricist Dave Frishberg may not be a household name in the world of jazz, but those in the know, musicians and listeners alike, appreciate the often whimsical artist. His works are associated with an "A" list of vocalists, including Blossom Dearie, Rosemary Clooney, Anita O'Day, Shirley Horn and Diana Krall. The 87-year old Frishberg now resides near Portland, Oregon after years in New York, Los Angeles and on the road.

Frishberg's presence in the Rose City is the good fortune of Portland area pianist Randy Porter. It would seem inevitable that Porter would try on some of his tunes for size, though it would seem he may have to do so with a vocal partner. Unlike Frishberg, who himself employs a narrative style of vocals that so perfectly complements the wit and humor of his tunes, Porter is not a singer. He did aptly display his skills as a vocal arranger and accompanist, and received a Grammy nomination for his release with vocal stylist Nancy King, Randy Porter plays Cole Porter (Heavywood Music, 2017).

Beneath the satirical wit and humor of Frishberg's often outlandish vocal conceptions, there is the music itself. The bones. Porter saw in the lush harmonic structure of the music, an opportunity through personal interpretation to reveal the timeless grace and levity of the music of one of jazz music's unique, transcendent talents. Aptly titled Unsung (Heavywood Music, 2020), Porter illuminates the works of a true jazz original.

Porter is an inventive, sophisticated player who has regularly performed with the Charles McPherson Quartet, as well as Benny Golson and Art Farmer. For this date, he forms a trio with Portland mates John Wiitala on bass, and Todd Strait on drums. Throughout the disc, the three display their undeniable musical virtuosity, and sparkle with a sense of joy within the music.

Still, for Frishberg's legion of aficionados, one cannot listen without referencing at least once, the madly offbeat lyrical meanderings of the master. After all, as fine of a musician as Porter obviously is, we must still ask for example, is he hip enough to be instrumentally interpreting, "I'm Hip?"

"I'm hip, I'm no square, I'm alert, I'm awake, I'm aware. I am always on the scene, makin' the rounds, diggin' the sounds."

The answer is a definitive yes, as dwelling on the lyrics would to a large extent, be missing the point. It's the bones remember? It's the trio weaving in and out of the harmony, with the always melodic Porter adding lush extensions to Frisherg's melody in lyrical (pun intended) fashion.

Porter even takes on the lively "I Want to Be a Sideman," swinging hard from the outset, adding rich, boppish intervals while pushing the band forward with strong chordal voicings. As hard as it may seem, Porter manages to express the satirical vibe of the tune, with Wiitala and Strait adding their liveliest work of the session.

The piano trio is jazz stripped down to its essential and vital core. Many of these tunes were performed and recorded solo by Frishberg. Bringing them into the trio realm instrumentally reveals the true genius of the music that unfortunately is often overlooked due to the master's trademark personality. Compositions such as "You Are There," "Dear Departed Past," and "Zanzibar" are exposed as delicate flowers, the petals scattering in the wind. The classic melody of "Peel Me a Grape" is still timeless without the voice, with Strait underpinning the effort with intricate snare work and deft cymbal splashes. Porter, always focused on melody, offers fluid runs between chordal clusters played strongly and sparingly.

One gets the sense that the trio would take these tunes in still different directions if given that chance over time, especially if performed before an audience in an intimate setting. What makes trio playing so dynamic, is three musicians reading each other in close proximity onstage, exchanging energy with a listening audience gathering the nuances of the tunes, and the magic within them. This record does get lost at times in the sense that Porter is leading, while Wiitala and Strait follow along. Trio sessions are vulnerable to this in isolation, as opposed to a live session either in an open room or club setting. Proximity seems to support more the notion of all three members simply playing music as equal partners.

Unsung is a bold strike into the magic of Frishberg's original notions. It is a must listen for his legion of fans who form an almost cult-like following. For everyone else, it may well be a chance to discover the tunes of the jazz elder statesman. More so, it is an occasion to acquaint oneself with Porter's refined, inventive playing.

Track Listing

Snowbound; Listen Here; I'm Hip; Heart's Desire; I Want to Be a Sideman; You Are There; Dear Departed Past; Wheelers and Dealers; Little Did I Dream; Peel Me a Grape; Do You Miss New York?; Zanzibar


Randy Porter: piano; John Wiitala: bass; Todd Strait: drums.

Album information

Title: Porter Plays Frishberg: Unsung | Year Released: 2020 | Record Label: Heavywood Records

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