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Erik Friedlander: Cello Ahead

By Published: March 1, 2003

Cello is a versatile instrument. It can be used for lead parts, as well as a harmonic and rhythmic instrument. It is hard to understand the reasons why it has been such a late bloomer in the field of jazz and improvised music. Maybe if a charismatic player like Coleman Hawkins had stuck to playing the cello (a little known fact to all those who know him exclusively as a saxophonist) a different path would have ensued for this instrument.

EF: The cello is a hard instrument: slower than a violin and difficult to put in a jazz setting, especially with the bow. The lack of a charismatic figure may be part of the explanation but 'when jazz was jazz'' people were in love with the trumpet, sax, piano, bass, drums, and trombone. They were not missing anything. It took people like Eric Dolphy, Chico Hamilton and others who experienced what stereotypical jazz could mean, to look at cello as one of the ways to innovate.

It's interesting to hear all of it. Fred Katz, the first cello player to pick up the bow and try to make it suitable instrument was certainly influential: listening to another cellist wrestle trying to fit into jazz, and realizing how difficult that could be. Hearing Abdul Wadud with Julius Hemphill is always exciting: a band concept in which the cello had an integral role. Hearing some of the early free players, like Joel Friedman with Charles Tyler, was also important. It showed the courage of musicians who threw themselves into those situations. More recently it was amazing listening to players writing their own music, arranging it and creating worlds for themselves was incredibly exciting: Hank Roberts and Ernst Reijseger, such a gifted player, able to play with all the tools: the bow and pizzicato, and theatrics and imagination.

Musicians dread the 'desert island' question. Asking it to Erik Friedlander was unavoidable: everybody knows the great saxophone, or trumpet, or piano, players and can guess which of them is a favorite of the contemporary players; it's harder to know much about fundamental cello jazz albums.

EF: My Little Cello by Oscar Pettiford is not only a beautiful record, but also a record that was conceived to revolve around the cello. It marked the beginning of cellist leader-composers. It featured Phil Urso, Julius Watkins, Walter Bishop, Charles Mingus, Percy Brice.

During the '80s, jazz journalists - striving to find something that may enliven a lame phase in this music's history and thinking that the solution could not be found in the music itself but in preposterous rivalries of the "Beatles vs. the Rolling Stones" kind - portrayed the jazz scene as highly polarized: 're-boppers' ' la Marsalis vs. 'radical innovators' ' la Zorn. Regardless of the reliability of this imagery, it cannot be denied that the last decade has witnessed a jazz scene characterized by a greater synthesis of styles, approaches and instruments. Cellists like Erik Friedlander have been at the forefront of this phenomenon, probably because coming from a classical background and moving towards improvised music they were - by definition - used to the effort of trying to bridge the divide between apparently irreconcilable worlds.

EF: The problem - and at the same time the golden opportunity - for cello players in this music is that we have no huge tradition or overarching figures like John Coltrane or Sonny Rollins looking over our shoulders. We are freer to try and find our own way, just because we have to. Of course, that's great and difficult at the same time.

The habit of thinking 'out of the box' that characterized Erik Friedlander's career explains the originality - and complexity - of his various projects, exemplified by unusual line-ups that go well beyond the 'soloist plus rhythm section' format and by a multi-layered sophistication in the compositions.

EF: My goal as a bandleader is to show how great the band is. I clearly want to make sure that my musical ideas get across to the audience, but at the same time it's crucial for me that everybody in the band can feel that they can shine in the music setting that I've put them in.

Chimera (with Chris Speed, Drew Gress, Andrew D'Angelo) has been the first project led by Erik Friedlander to find accurate documentation on record. His efforts however are now focused on his quartet Topaz.

EF: My working band is the quartet TOPAZ with Andy Laster on saxophone, Stomu Takeishi on bass and Satoshi Takeishi on percussion, with which I'll play at the Arles Festival in May. At the same time I'm still working with John Zorn and Dave Douglas. With Dave we have a very interesting project we just did in Koln, a concerto for trumpet cello and percussion, with Mike Sarin. I'm also working in trio with Sylvie Courvoisier and Mark Feldman.

My latest project - Grains of Paradise - features cello, bass, percussion, guitar and ten violins. It is influenced by the stories of spice caravans that traveled dangerous routes to reach Europe as well as modern Middle Eastern pop music.

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Download jazz mp3 “Aching Sarah ” by Erik Friedlander