Don Friedman Trio: A DAY IN THE CITY

six jazz variations on a theme

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Don Friedman (p) Chuck Israels (b) Joe Hunt (drs)  

New York City; June 12, 1961


  1. Dawn (6:01)

  2. Midday (5:45)

  3. Rush Hour (6:41)


  1. Sunset (5:44)

  2. Early Evening (4:09)

  3. Night (7:56)

  (all selections written by Don Friedman)

   The history of jazz, as by now even the staunchest non-assimilationist will admit, has been a history of musical borrowings from non-jazz sources. If one thinks of the list of composer-pianists in jazz, he will find that probably only Thelonious Monk has not participated in this borrowing. So at this point, it is no longer a matter of saying that such-and-such a pianist has used “European influences,” but rather one of seeing how well, and in what way, influences have been used.

   Probably the problem has never before been dealt with in precisely the way employed by Don Friedman, the young pianist whose group of pieces with the collective title A Day in the City is presented here, in his first recording as a leader. Since his work is so truly different, one must wonder whether perhaps some may attach to Friedman’s work the hackeneyed old stigma that his pieces “are not jazz.” And with that in mind, one is likely to be astonished at Friedman’s own thoughts on the matter; “ I know they’re not jazz,” says Don! (Let us remember, however, that the artist is not at all necessarily the most accurate judge of such matters; by my standards, for example, this is jazz without question – unusual, and intriguing, jazz.)

   But the always unsolvable problem of the ‘what-is-jazz’ definition is really only a very small part of the matter at hand here. It is much more to the point to examine more fully the nature of the man and his music. Friedman, a slim, pleasant young man who was born in San Francisco on May 4. 1935, was initially to become a concert pianist, but that seems to have been more his parents idea than his own. Don himself was greatly interested in playing jazz, and while still on the West Coast progressed to the point where he was doing so with such well-established musicians as Chet Baker and Buddy DeFranco.

   He came to New York a few years ago, as almost any aspiring jazz musician must eventually do, and found work with such variegated groups as the Donald Byrd-Pepper Adams Quintet, the Harry Edison Quintet which numbered tenorman Jimmy Forrest and drummer Elvin Jones among its members, and for about a year, the group led by Mingus alumnus John Handy. There was also a stint accompanying singer Dick Haymes, and several cocktail, dane, and society jobs. Most memorable of all to Friedman was a warm association with the late bassist Scott LaFaro.

   At the same time as he was working these various jobs, Friedman was studying composition privately with David Simon. One of the assignments given him in the course of these studies was to write a set of variation on the theme of an old folk song, The Minstrel Boy. This work was done strictly as a compositional assignment, with no initial thought of further use or of improvising on the variations. However, by an evolutionary process which even Friedman has some difficulty in explaining, The Minstrel Boy became A Day in the City.

   The original variations were linear rather than chordal in concept; in fact, as Friedman says, “there were no chords.” These variations still exist as the written portion of A Day in the City; although Friedman lists Bartok, Schoenberg, and Webern as the composers he listens to most frequently, the written sections sound, to this writer, reminiscent of the piano pieces of Prokofiev.

   As the idea grew on him to use the variations as bases for jazz improvisation, Friedman felt that there would have to be chord sequences sketched out to play on – yet there were no original chord sequences. The problem had its solution in another aspect of the work. The programmatic possibilities of the variations had begun to suggest themselves to him at about the same time – hence the overall title, A Day in the City, and the titles of the individual sections: Dawn: Midday; Rush Hour; Sunset; Early Evening; and Night. The moods associated with these varying times of day presented themselves to Friedman in terms of rhythm. Once the rhythm and tempo of the improvisation was decided upon, he then chose a chord sequence – related, but not identical, to the original Minstrel Boy – which seemed most appropriate to the desired mood. The typical 1-2-5 progressions appear here very seldom; they are used too often, for Friedman’s taste, in most pop tunes for him to employ tem to any great extent in his own work.

   Which brings up another matter. It is not very often that a young, relatively unknown musician will choose to record only “originals” – a generic word which I feel is particularly inadequate for what Friedman has done here – on a debut album; it is less frequent than that for the record company to allow him to do so. Standards are considered valuable aids in coming to grips with an unfamiliar musician, and indeed, they often are. But Friedman feels that an entirely different kind of thing is taking place when he is “playing somebody else’s music.” Naming a few well-known jazz versions of music by such composers as Cole Porter, he feels that the musicians involved might just as well have played their own work, so little fidelity did they show to the intent of the original. A composer himself, he has an idea of what the authors of these works must feel, and so he is at his freest when playing his own work.

   The high degree of originality in his playing might stem, in part, from the fact that he “doesn’t listen to very much music,” When he does listen to jazz, it is to Parker, Davis, Rollins, and Coltrane. Among pianists, he prefers Bud Powell and Art Tatum, and a friend of long standing, Bill Evans. Evans is the only “influence” Friedman acknowledges, and about the only one that can be discerned, although Friedman reveals himself to be a much more percussive pianist than Evans.

   Obviously, a work like this could not even be attempted, not to mention successfully brought off, without extremely sympathetic support. Drummer Joe Hunt was one of Don’s co-members in the John Handy rhythm section.  One of the substantial group of musicians from Indiana now beginning to be recognized (and where will it be next?) he was a member, along with Indianan trombonist Dave Baker, of the most recent George Russell Sextet. Bassist Chuck Israels, who played with Hunt in an earlier Russell contingent, is thoroughly familiar with the potential complexities of contemporary jazz piano, having recorded with Cecil Taylor. Israel’s work here shows that he – along with Wilber Ware, Charlie Haden (and before his death, LaRaro) – is one of the small group of young musicians busily expanding the role of the bass. Friedman feels fortunate and gratified that both Hunt and Israels were sufficiently intrigued by the music to join in several rehearsals before the recording, without which the set would undoubtedly be much less successful than it is.

   A Day in the City is fascinating and unique in several respects; it employs classical composition techniques; the improvisations are not related to the theme in the ordinary way; and yet, it goes back to the theme-and-variations which are also the basis of jazz. It seems pointless to make extravagant claims for this music, or to tout it as a “direction”; it is an intriguing and satisfying experience in itself, and on its own terms, and too few records are that.




Recording Engineer: BILL STODDARD (Bell Sound Studios)

Mastered at Plaza Sound Studios

Album design: KEN DEARDOFF

Back-liner photo: STEVE SCHAPIRO

This recording is available in both Stereophonic (RLP 9384) and Monaural (RLP 384) form.


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