West Coast jazz meets the Middle East

Jazz pianist Don Friedman arrives to play at Tel Aviv's Opera House.

Like most jazz musicians, pianist Don Friedman ebbs and flows between styles and genres. The 70-year-old Jewish San Francisco-born artist is here to play at Tel Aviv's Opera House as the opener of a new jazz season entitled The Piano At The Center. As the name suggests, the series revolves around jazz pianists as bandleaders. This is Friedman's second visit to these shores, having appeared at the Tel Aviv Jazz Festival in 1995 alongside contemporary saxophonist Lee Konitz, and he is happy to be back. "When I came over for the first time it was a very moving experience to be in Israel. It's good to be back, and I'm enjoying the weather," said Friedman before departing for a sightseeing trip to the Golan Heights and the Dead Sea. Friedman began his musical learning curve in traditional "a good Jewish boy" manner, with classical piano. However, when he was old enough to make his own mind up about which artistic direction to take he opted for jazz, even if he had to do all the groundwork himself. "There were no jazz teachers around back then," Friedman recalls. "I had to learn it all myself and then I discovered all this freedom I didn't have with classical music, without all those tough classical rules." Friedman evidently made consummate self-taught progress because by the time he was 21 he had recorded with established stars of the free-oriented jazz fraternity, saxophonist Ornette Coleman and trumpeter-cornetist Don Cherry. It was shortly after this that Friedman headed east. In the fifties there was something of a divide between jazz styles based in California and New York. "Despite the fact that I came from the West Coast I preferred the jazz from New York," says Friedman. "I'd played with guys like [trumpeter] Chet [Baker] in California but, you know, life there is so relaxed, especially in southern California. That comes out in the music too. But I felt the music that I heard was coming from New York had a sharper edge to it. I'd heard players like Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins and Miles Davis. I remember Miles came out to California with [legendary saxophonist John] Coltrane, [pianist] Red Garland, [bass player] Paul Chambers and [drummer] Philly Joe Jones and I thought that was one of the best bands I'd ever heard, and I still do." In 1956 Friedman landed a slot with bebop clarinetist Buddy DeFranco's band and that offered a route to get a taste of, and eventually relocate to, the Big Apple. "We did a tour that took us to New York for several months, and about a year later I moved there." The young pianist quickly found his place in the New York jazz community, recording and performing with the likes of bebop icons drummer Max Roach and reedman Eric Dolphy. Despite his Jewish origins Friedman says that didn't play much of a role in his personal or artistic development. "I wasn't really brought up in a Jewish atmosphere ,so I don't know if that comes into my music." Recently, however, he had a brief fling with a Jewish-flavored project. " I played in Florida in something called The Hassidic Jazz Project. But, it wasn't that great. I don't think I'll be doing that again." Despite his disappointment with his short foray into Jewish music, Friedman has made it to the land of the Jews and will happily entertain us this Friday with a trio including bassist Ed Schuller and drummer Tony Jefferson, with saxophonist Ralph Lalama boosting the ranks on a few numbers. "We'll play some originals and some standards," says the bandleader. It appears Friedman is still intent on mixing it. Don Friedman will appear at the Opera House in Tel Aviv on Friday at 10 p.m.