Renée Yoxon with her pal  ©Brett Delmage, 2012
Renée Yoxon with her pal ©Brett Delmage, 2012

Read the review of the premiere of this show:  Making the most of great songs (review)

Sometime – on the radio, on a CD, in a club, in a concert – you've probably heard someone perform the song "My Attorney Bernie": "Bernie tells me what to do; Bernie lays it on the line. Bernie says we sue, we sue; Bernie says we sign, we sign."

It's infectious, it's memorable, it's funny, and it hides some disquieting contradictions that make you think twice – and then enjoy it more.

It's by Dave Frishberg, an American jazz pianist and songwriter, who has been writing and performing this type of song for more than four decades. Some of his songs are satirical, some are bittersweet, and some are straight-out love songs (to baseball as well as the opposite sex).

Frishberg's albums aren't easy to find; his fans have to hunt through jazz record stores when on vacation, and search online.

And those fans include many well-known female jazz singers, who have recorded many of his songs.

One local fan is Ottawa jazz vocalist Renée Yoxon. On Thursday, April 26, Yoxon will team up with pianist J.P. Allain to present an evening of Frishberg's songs, rearranged for a quartet and her voice, but with the smart, sometimes funny, sometimes sad lyrics fully intact. editor Alayne McGregor sat down recently with Yoxon to talk about the concert and how Yoxon became a Frishberg fan.
Listen to the podcast [15 min, 10 MB] You call this project My Pal Frishberg. So what's the relationship between you and Dave Frishberg?

Yoxon: You know, I can't really remember why I called the show My Pal Frishberg, because it was so long ago that I named it that. I think originally I wanted to write music in the vein of David Frishberg, and that was an idea for a song, and I thought it had a Frishberg-y vibe, that name. Well, "My Pal" is a very American sort of thing, which fits an American singer [like Frishberg], right?

Yoxon: Exactly. So you had the idea...just because you'd heard his music and it appealed to you?

Yoxon: Yes. I've been listening to David Frishberg for a long time. So many of my teachers have recorded Frishberg tunes: Tena Palmer recorded "Sweet Kentucky Ham", Julie Michels recorded "Do You Miss New York", Roberta Gambarini recorded "You Are There", and the list goes on. And so I've always known that I loved these tunes.

I had conceived of doing this show a long time ago, specifically with J.P. [Allain], because of his style. And so when he approached me to do a show and he asked me what do I want to do, I thought, "I already have a show for you constructed. I have all the music. It's perfect." So it was serendipity. So, when did you and J.P. first start talking about this?

Yoxon: I think he approached me in November and I said, yes, I know exactly what we're going to do. I have a folder in my hair-brained schemes part of my filing cabinet.

Yes, I do this all the time. I'll conceive of a show: I'm definitely going to do a show with strings, and a baritone saxophone. Here's who I want to play, and here's what we'll play. I write it all down and I put it in the filing cabinet, and then one day maybe the stars will align – like this time. This is exactly what happened. [laughs] It's been six months in the making?

Yoxon: Or longer, yes, absolutely. Did you ever hear Frishberg live or did you know anybody who had heard him live?

Yoxon: No, never. I've never seen him live, even though he's alive and playing, still. So hopefully one day. I'm going to step a little bit back. How does this concert fit into your overall career path?

Yoxon: Oh, I wish I knew. I don't know. I guess I'm between records right now. The last one, it's been a couple years since it came out. The next one I'm hoping will come out by the end of this year, wink, wink. But I didn't have a big project on the go. A lot of little ones, but nothing as big as this one. So [the Frishberg concert] just sort of fit the timeline. If I was doing anything else, it would never have happened. What appeals to you about Frishberg's songs?

Yoxon: Lots of things appeal to me about Frishberg's songs. I really love how...his lyrical content is so unique. That's the main thing for me. Like "Sweet Kentucky Ham," for instance, is one of my favourite tunes that we're going to be playing. And it's about the memory associated with food. I was just totally flabbergasted when I first heard the song, because it's like, "Oh, man, of course. Why didn't I think of that?" I don't know anybody who would have thought of that. It's so unique.

And then the melodies are super-complex and beautiful, and the forms are all interesting, and every tune of his seems to stand out. I can imagine somebody writing one tune like that in their career, but his whole career is tunes like this. So it's amazing, really. I was reading some stuff off his website where he was talking about what he does in songwriting. And one of the things he said was that he commands the listener's attention by using silence and pauses and arresting language, which is what you were talking about before. Do you find his songs supportive as a singer?

Yoxon: Absolutely. Some of them just seem to sing themselves. At first they seem quite intimidating. But then when you sit down and learn them, the melody and the lyrics are so inextricably linked, and they just come out very naturally. And they really draw the audience in, easily. So it's easy to deliver them once you're used to them?

Yoxon: Absolutely. At first it can be like you're running hurdles and you keep tripping. But once it's in there, it's really hard to shake. One of the things he talked about as well is how songs like "My Attorney Bernie" or "You'd Rather Have the Blues," those songs, he says they're a reflective discourse; they're a personal conversation. They have to be delivered as though the singer was personally talking to the audience. And I'm wondering what kind of challenges you have singing that type of song.

Yoxon: Well, it's certainly far more cabaret than I'm used to. And they also defy conventional wisdom. All the songs I sing, well, typically, are about overarching themes that everybody has felt, and believable people and recognizable situations. But "My Attorney Bernie" isn't any of those things. It's straight out of a cabaret show. Except it's not. So that's a crazy thing.

And so that has been a challenge for me, because I have to be more of a character, or get into it in a different way. And it's been really interesting to exercise that. Do you find it a challenge also because so many people have done "My Attorney Bernie"?

Yoxon: Well, no. I haven't actually heard tons of versions of "My Attorney Bernie." I know lots of people have sung it, but up until recently I had only heard Frishberg's and Amy Cervini's [versions], because she's a friend. Then just yesterday I heard Blossom Dearie for the first time. Even though she's famous for that song, it was the first time I had heard her do that song. So no, I'm not intimidated by, not worried at all, because it's a totally fun song to sing. I was looking up Frishberg on Wikipedia, and they mention all these female singers who had done his songs: Blossom Dearie, Rosemary Clooney, Anita O'Day, Diana Krall, Stacey Kent. That doesn't even count all the ones you know. So, what do you think appeals to female singers about this male singer, his material?

Yoxon: I think the question is, why don't more male singers sing his material? I mean, if you think about it, Frishberg has kind of a more feminine voice – it's a little bit higher in pitch. I don't think a lot of men would look at that and say, "That's for me", because he kind of defies conventional wisdom when it comes to how to present masculinity. A lot of women are – bring it on, that's fine with me. [laughs] How well do you think Frishberg's actually known in the jazz community?

Yoxon: Not well enough, surprisingly, because he's been around for a long time and his songs are widely recorded. But not many people seem to know about him. I don't know how I learned about him. I just happened to read the authorship of one tune and then followed the trail, followed my nose until I found all of his tunes. But if you don't stumble upon it, no one's going to sit you down and tell you about it. So, you're more introducing the audience, then, to someone that they may not be necessarily as aware of.

Yoxon: Yes, exactly. How did you select the tunes?

Yoxon: I picked the tunes that...Well, you had to have a nice balance of silly tunes to serious tunes. I know J.P. wanted some Latin tunes and some tunes in three. We actually adapted "Eloise" so that it would be in three, even though it's normally in four. So that I'm really excited about.

But basically I just kind of ruled out the ones that I thought: "there's no way I'm going to be able to deliver this with any authenticity". Like "Oklahoma Toad"? Not going to do it. Or the baseball tunes, I wasn't going to do that.

So I had, obviously, my list of favorites, like "Sweet Kentucky Ham" and "Do You Miss New York?" and "Peel Me a Grape" and "Our Love Rolls On," and all that. I loved all these tunes. Then, I had to learn 15 tunes after that. [laughs] I learned a lot of tunes, it was so crazy. So, you've got these tunes. Now, how do you make them your own?

Yoxon: That is a good question. I don't know yet. I mean, I know we're down to the wire here, but I think I still have to think about that a little more.

Especially after Tuesday [April 3], when I did the [Manhattan on the Rideau] masterclass with Peter Eldridge, I sang two songs from the set. He was like, OK, so make this your own. Then I thought, "oh damn, I haven't spent really enough time with these tunes."

So, I'm glad that that happened, because I really have to sit down and think about how I'm going to identify emotionally with the lyrics and with the melodies in each of the tunes. We did "Our Love Rolls On," and now I know how I'm going to do that one. "Heart's Desire," which is the other one I did, I'm pretty sure I got that one, too. But all the others, I mean, we'll see. What do you think you got out of Eldridge's master class?

Yoxon: Well, just that. I got a dose of perspective. It's not just about having a nice voice and landing the melody. I need to really sell it, I need to really get into the character, and I need to be as genuine as possible. You have a better voice than Frishberg does. [laughter]

Yoxon: That's subjective, I imagine. [laughs] To me he does not have a large vocal range. How do you adapt the songs to allow for a better voice?

Yoxon: Well, I don't know. I guess he doesn't have technically a large vocal range, but the tunes in fact do have a large range. Some of them...Like "Heart's Desire" is a good example, it starts out as low as possible, and then it goes really high. He kind of will wing them sometimes, and they're not... If you try to lift the melody you're probably going to get it wrong, if you lift it from Dave Frishberg.

But they're surprisingly easy to adapt, because they're so beautiful. It's clear that what comes out of his mouth might not necessarily match how he heard it in his head. But nobody delivers them as well as he can, because he wrote them. Now, Frishberg also plays the piano while he's actually singing, so he can drive the tune a bit more. He can make it slower, make it faster. Because he's playing the piano, the other people will play along with it. But you're only singing, and you've got to have some more coordination with the other people in the trio. How are you managing that?

Yoxon: This has been actually a big challenge. The other thing is [that] Frishberg plays solo almost all the time. I don't think I've ever heard him play with other people. I've only heard him do these solo shows. But what we've had to do is arrange these tunes like crazy.

We have to know: when is there going to be a rubato section? Who's conducting it? When are there stops, when are there breaks, when are there shots? We have to know all this stuff. We're rehearsing a lot. J.P. and I especially have been rehearsing every week since November. [laughs] We've grown to love one another in a strange way. But yes, so J.P. and I are on lock, and we are really in charge of the band, and we share those duties of leading. How does this music compare to what you did on [Renée's first album] Let's Call it a Day?

Yoxon: Oh, it's totally different. [laughs] It's so totally different. I'm really excited for people to see me differently, actually. I remember when I first recorded the demo and I brought it home and I showed it to my partner Craig, he was like, "Wow. This is nothing like Let's Call it a Day. People are going to love this!" And not that he didn't like Let's Call it a Day, but not many people who haven't seen me live get to see that side of me. Have you developed the show? Have you workshopped the show at all, or was the Eldridge masterclass the first time you had actually done the songs live?

Yoxon: That was, yes, the first time. We were going to do a show, but then it got cancelled. We were going to play it live, but we've done this together so many times, and I'm not worried. Everyone's professional, and they're all great, and it's going to be so much fun. I was just wondering if you were going to try out some of the songs at the Overkill Bar [Renée's regular Monday night gig]?

Yoxon: No, because they're not... If I was going to do that, then François [Gravel] and I would have to sit down and rehearse. We have our own thing and we're working on other stuff, François and I. Does the song "Heart's Desire" have any personal connection for you?

Yoxon: Absolutely. Out of all of them, that one has the most personal connection because Frishberg wrote it as like a parent figure talking to a child. I don't quite see it that way, obviously. I think of it more as an introspective tune, like me talking to me, which I guess is what introspection means. But yes, the song is all about following your dreams and how risky it can be, but all the benefits are there if you happen to succeed. I guess that's the moral of my story here as a jazz singer. What are you planning to do with the project beyond the concert?

Yoxon: I'm not sure. I'm trying to work out what the plan is, because I feel like we're putting in an enormous amount of time and energy, and I really don't want it to just be gone in the breeze. We're definitely going to record it for archival purposes. I was hoping to be able to record it and make a disc, but it's unlikely that will happen.

If anything, the most likely scenario is probably that we'll go in the studio with Norm [Glaude] and record it there. I don't know what our other options are. Maybe we'll shop it around to other art centres. If we happen to sell it out, there's a good chance that other places might want to have it as well.

It's not going to be the end of the Frishberg show when this is done. I'm sure it'll have life beyond this one evening. Yes, there have been some great one-off shows that I've seen at the Four Stage, and then, nothing! And you think, why not take it a little bit further?

Yoxon: Well, who knows? This might be it. We might do the show, get a few nice pictures, and then thank you very much, on to the next thing, which is how everything in music is. Especially the type of music that I do, it's jazz. Even if we do it again, it'll never be the same twice, and that's why I want everyone to come out.

But also, after this project I have other projects that I'm going to be working on. I want to make a CD in December with Mark Ferguson. I'm planning into 2013 now, and I want to go to Banff. [Yoxon was accepted into the Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music, for a three-week residency in May/June, 2012.]

There's a whole ton of things. So the project, hopefully, it will have some life after [the concert], but if it doesn't I'm probably going to be OK with that. I'll look on this with some fond memories.

Renée Yoxon and J.P. Allain (along with Denis Ouellet and Normand Glaude) will present "My Pal Frishberg" at the NAC Fourth Stage on Thursday, April 26, 2012.

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