Erik Friedlander's last solo cello disc, the avant-tinged Maldoror (Brassland, 2003), was a series of in-the-moment improvisations inspired by 19th century French surrealist poetry. Block Ice & Propane is an entirely different beast, stimulated by memories of childhood camping trips across the United States, on which Friedlander's parents took him each summer. It's no less adventurous or spontaneous, but it is considerably more accessiblehow Bill Frisell might sound, perhaps, had he chosen the cello rather than the guitar.
Friedlander's impressive and vast technical skill lets him transform the cello into an instrument that's played in many cases like a guitar, where rather than single or double-note pizzicato, he actually finger-picks and strums. The album possesses a folkloric vibe from the very start of "King Rig, where Friedlander tremolos on the high strings while picking spare bass notes before introducing a more propulsive rhythm that reflects the truck of the title.
Even when he brings out his bow, as he does on the dramatic "Airstream Envy, the ambiance remains rootsy. It's an arco tour-de-force as Friedlander moves from rhythmic cross-bowing to perfectly controlled harmonics, but the melodies are always singable. Even the brief "Road Weary, which begins with two outré cries, ultimately fits its title perfectly. Artists often talk about the difficulties in naming pieces, but Friedlander's titles are so appropriate that it's possible to anticipate them while listening to the musica rare feat.
It's also rare that an engineer/producer gets equal mention, but here it's completely appropriate. Scott Solter's live processing makes what is already an unequivocal link between Friedlander and Frisell even clearer, creating ambient washes behind the cellist on the hauntingly beautiful "Dream Song and the atmospheric "Rusting in Honeysuckle which, alongside "A Thousand Unpieced Suns and "Pressure Cooking, has some of Friedlander's most extreme playing of the set.
Some of the pieces are completely improvised while others appear to have at least some basis in preconception. Melodic pieces like "Yakida and the low-end closer, "Valley of Fire, may be composed, but Friedlander's ever-spontaneous approach suggests they'd sound different every time they were played.
With Friedlander's distinctive take on Americana no less personal than Frisell's, Block Ice & Propane supports his reputation as the most innovative, imaginative and stylistically unbound cellist in improvised music. The logical next step would be to see him collaborate with Frisell and, given these two artists' open-mindedness, it's by no means impossible to think it might happen. One can only hope.
Personnel: Erik Friedlander: cello, tuning forks; Scott Solter: engineer, live processing.