Back in the mid-1960s, a young jazz bassist named David Friesen found his band playing opposite the classic John Coltrane Quartet at a Seattle club called the Penthouse. Although he sat just a few feet away from some of the most powerful and distinctive players in jazz history—Trane, drummer Elvin Jones, pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison—Friesen realized that at a certain point, their individual personalities had receded, and “the music had risen to the surface.”
Despite his own phenomenal chops, that’s the state Friesen, now one of the living masters of jazz bass, aspires to achieve whenever he performs. “In the midst of finding the music, I take my hands off the steering wheel, and it’s the music that leads,” he says.
To achieve that elusive goal requires musicians who, like the Coltrane quartet, possess not just superior musical ability, but the ability to set ego aside and respond to what’s going on around them—to go where the music takes them. “Listening is my life preserver in the ocean of sound,” Friesen wrote in one of his books about jazz. “Without it, I drown.”
That’s why Friesen, who performs regularly in various duets, trios, a quintet and solo, especially values his partners in the trio that plays Jimmy Mak’s this Saturday. Veteran drummer Alan Jones and pianist Randy Porter “are both brilliant musicians technically, so they have the tools to create,” Friesen explains, “but they’re also ardent listeners. And when you know the others are listening, you can trust. And when you trust musically, you can do the triple somersault off the bar, knowing that if you miss the bar, there’s always that net to catch you—it takes away the fear of taking chances. That’s what jazz is all about: having the chance to take chances with what you’re playing.”
And that’s also why, although Friesen’s written well over 600 songs by his own count, this trio eschews his compositions, any arrangements whatsoever—even rehearsals. They’ve never had one, following Miles Davis’ famous injunction to his colleagues that he wanted them to practice on the bandstand, the better to maintain the spontaneity that inspires the best jazz. (Such a policy depends on finding musicians who can handle such freedom, which was Davis’ great genius.) Freed of such constraints, the trio can “respond immediately to what we’re hearing, so we’re following the music and not the arrangement,” Friesen says. “So we have this constant communication going on between us, allowing the other person’s idea to manifest itself before we add to it.”
The result is often transcendent music that surpasses the considerable sum of its parts. Two of the trio’s seven CDs have placed high in critics’ polls, they’ve just released a new one, augmented by Seattle multi-instrumentalist Jay Thomas and singer Crystal Gray. But a busy travel schedules make this performance their first in nearly a year.
Friesen, having just returned from the latest of his many European tours, likes to stay busy. He has another European trip coming up in the spring, and may be headed back to China after that. A charter member of the Oregon Music Hall of Fame, the Tacoma native has recorded some six dozen albums as a leader and performed with many of jazz’s most revered names—Dizzy Gillespie, Joe Henderson, Stan Getz, Freddie Hubbard and many more. Yet for all his journeys throughout contemporary jazz, Friesen’s managed to maintain a home in Portland since 1968, when he scored a regular gig at Sidney’s jazz club. A few years after moving here, he opened an after-hours coffeehouse called Selah where jazz players would gather to jam until dawn.
Though Selah’s is long gone, Friesen’s decades on the city’s jazz scene give him a valuable perspective. “Jazz is probably at the lowest ebb since I’ve been living in Portland,” he laments. But he also sees glimmers of hope, such as the reopening of Brasserie Monmartre and a new Japanese restaurant/jazz venue on Broadway opening in the spring where Friesen will do the booking. Let’s hope it portends the revival of a scene worthy of the world-class jazzers, such as David Friesen, who live and play here.
SEE IT: The David Friesen Trio performs Saturday, Jan. 9, at Jimmy Mak’s. 8 pm. $10. 21+.