Joel Frahm's Musical Reunion
“ That's what I love him for, that he can just come up with those things and be so spontaneous yet so perfect in his choices. ”
Joel Frahm's Don't Explain is just one of many reunions between the saxophonist and his high school classmate, pianist Brad Mehldau.
The recording was a natural next step after the two reunited for two concerts to raise money for the nationally-known music program at their alma mater, William H. Hall High School, in West Hartford, Conn.
"I asked Brad if he would be interested in doing a charity concert," said Frahm in a recent interview, "and he said, 'Yeah'. The first one seemed really successful and then we did another one. It just seemed really natural to play with him again."
Frahm and Mehldau had known each other for more than 13 years when the first of the two concerts was held. They were introduced shortly after Frahm and his family moved to West Hartford from Racine, Wis., in 1985.
Their meeting was "kind of just random," said Frahm. "[Mehldau's] best friend was this drummer named Bill Dobrow, who was selected by our principal at the time to show me around the school, which was kind of funny at the time because he took the opportunity to skip all of his classes."
Frahm first heard Mehldau play when after a month at his new school, he stopped into the auditorium during jazz choir rehersal and remembers "being transifixed" by the young pianist. Soon afterward, Dobrow introduced Frahm to Mehldau, and three began hanging out, jamming often together after school in the band room.
"We were kind of strange bedfellows ' he and Bill were a little hipper and more urbane than I was. I was sort of 'fresh off the farm' coming from Wisconsin," said Frahm. "I hadn't really been introduced to a lot of music and those were the first few guys I started to listening to records with. We would play impromptu free jazz sessions together ' we didn't really know what we were doing. As we discovered the history of jazz together listening to Charlie Parker and Coltrane and that sort of stuff, that was the first Petri dish for us."
Their first sessions together included standards from the requisite Real Book , but they also experimented a bit, said Frahm. "We'd play some of the standards that we knew, but a lot of the time Brad would kind of vamp out ' he was really into Keith Jarrett and that kind of stuff, so he would try to approximate that ... and so he would come up with these harmonic pads to play over.
"He was just so good, and so fluent even before he had any bebop vocabulary. He would just kind of generate these modal vamps and we would play over that and just see how whacked out we could make it. I think we fancied ourselves as sort of these avant-garde guys back in those days, but I'm not sure we really knew what we were doing. (Laughs) We were just trying to have fun and figure out different odd ways to play, I think," recalled Frahm.
While most of his early development in improvisation came from those improptu sessions, Frahm was also a member of the school's jazz big band.
"There were a lot of great students in the band around me. There was a tenor player named Pat Zimmerli who is now more of a 21st-century composer, I guess you could call him," remembered Frahm. "He was a great jazz tenor player at the time, and he had subsumed many influences and he could really play, and so he was the first person to really inspire me in a personal way to play jazz."
Membership in that ensemble also led to a watershed event in Frahm's life.
"Because I had just made it into the band and they could see that I was excited and pretty dedicated about it, the whole band chipped in and bought me six LP's for my sixteenth birthday. Among them were Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers Thermo , and Ready For Freddie , the Freddie Hubbard record with Wayne Shorter, Horace Silver's Sterling Silver , Eastern Rebellion [Vol.] 2 by the Cedar Walton Trio with Bob Berg, and a Prestige two-fer of Miles Davis, Green Haze ," Frahm said. "I listened to them to death and it really changed my life because I became so obsessed with the solos and the sounds on these LPs. ... That was really my entre [into jazz]."
Like many jazz musicians, especially saxophonists, Charlie Parker was an influence on Frahm, and in Joel's case, a revelatory one.
"I remember going to the library and picking up some compilation of Bird that had a lot of the solos that were transcribed for the Charlie Parker Omnibook , which was an educational book with all of his transcriptions. I'd been reading out of it, and hadn't really understood," said Frahm.