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Interviews

Erik Friedlander: Complexity, Simplicity and Arc

By Published: May 1, 2006

Some of the stuff Ive written, in the beginning especially, was done because I really want to play with a rhythm section. I want to groove. I dont want to be doing free or chamber music just because I play the cello.

Erik FriedlanderArguably the premier cellist in improvised music, New York musician Erik Friedlander has played with John Zorn, Dar Williams, Clogs, Laurie Anderson, Dave Douglas and Hole. His own groups have run the gamut from the chamber jazz—"chamber being a term Friedlander's come to loathe—of Chimera to the improvisational groove of Topaz. He's also a fine solo cellist who performs frequently, and fruitfully, in that setting. His new Topaz CD Prowl is the best recording yet from that band, and one of the best records of the year so far. I spoke with Friedlander about the new CD with Topaz, his solo work, the horrors of waiting backstage, and more.

All About Jazz: Your newest recording is Prowl. This is a CD from your group Topaz, which consists of you, altoist Andy Laster, bassist Stomu Takeishi and drummer Satoshi Takeishi on percussion. This band doesn't play together every day, but it has existed on and off for a good decade now. Let's talk about the musicians. First, there's Andy, who plays alto and, on this new record, clarinet. You and he have a nice empathy and at times you even occupy similar tonal areas—a very casual listen to "Howling Circle could almost give the impression that your cello is overdubbed.

Erik Friedlander: That's so interesting. I get a lot of people saying they can't tell where the cello ends and the alto begins and we're always struck by that. I think it's a tribute to Andy because he's such a great musician and he's so attuned to blending and making that front line work.

AAJ: So what does Andy add to this band?

EF: It's an ideal situation because he's incredibly conscientious about the music, about supporting whatever the frame is that I set up in terms of what the piece demands—but he's not so conscientious that you lose who he is. He's a bandleader and he writes music, so he really can step out and be a powerful soloist. I think I chose this band really well in terms of these issues, because it's a way of describing everybody: they really know how to step out. Because it's important; it's great to have people who can fill a need in terms of what the piece needs, but in this kind of music you need people who have personality and know what it means to be a soloist. So it's always been a dialogue like this with Andy over the years. Also, this is a band without a chordal instrument; a chordal instrument like a guitar or a keyboard can fill up a lot of room in the midrange and make it much easier for a front line, in terms of the work that we have to do. Without that, we have to be even more creative in how we support each other in terms of when one guy's soloing and the other guy's helping shape the direction of the music. It also just means that we have to be that much better in terms of how we perform the music, because it's a little bit more naked.

AAJ: Tell me about Stomu. The new record is called Prowl, and there's a song on it with the same title, but to me the most prowling presence in Topaz is Stomu's electric bass. Tell me about his contribution to the group.

EF: Well, it's hard to know where to start. I don't know if you watch basketball, but they always talk about the coach on the floor, the point guard—the person who carries the coach's mindset onto the floor. He's kind of like that; he sees the big picture. He often has really great suggestions on how to shape a piece or an idea about an ending. Sometimes when I'm at a loss, he'll say, "well, why don't we try this? He always seems to have a great idea. And again, he really brings a lot of personality. I haven't heard anybody play like he does—he can be so abstract and so textural, but at the same time he's so attuned to the subdivisions of the rhythm and the time. You don't get one and lose the other—you get both with him. He comes with this whole package of strange and beautiful textures and sounds. But at the same time, we do a lot of odd-metered pieces, and these need to be not just played accurately—we need to be able to launch, to take off with them. That means the rhythm section has to be able to handle this stuff easily, and they really do. I think that's the amazing thing: his voice can be so strange and odd and mysterious—like you said, prowling—and at the same time, he can turn around and just knock out a groove. That's amazing. Playing live is so much fun, just seeing where things go.

And then Satoshi—he was kind of the magic element, the straw that stirred the drink in this band, because we had spent a good year trying to make it without a percussive instrument. Like his brother, he can handle all sorts of rhythmic complexity—but not to the detriment of the music. He really has an incredible energy and all these hand drum techniques; he's a really spectacular hand percussionist. He spent all this time in Colombia, he speaks fluent Spanish—he's one of these guys where you just keep peeling back layers of the onion. I've known him for ten years and I keep finding out new things about him. He's very humble; he never tells you about all the things that he can do. So you get the idea of what I'm after in terms of being a bandleader. I need to feel that we're all on the same page and that we're pursuing what the goals of a particular piece are. But then at the same time, I want us all to have the ability to explode.

AAJ: Well, you couldn't have found players who are more capable of technical rigor, but at the same time so imbued with personality.

EF: Right. Especially these days, with this band—I don't write music that is just about that technical, sort of classical situation. It needs to have that ability to turn a corner at any moment.

AAJ: Prowl is the first Topaz record since the 2003 CD Quake. The two records have a lot in common. Both do a great deal with relatively concise structures, and band's approach on each is very Topaz-ish. But this new one feels like the most distilled and effortlessly unified effort from this band—like the group has nothing to prove and is all the more effective for it. No one is forcing anything, so the music can just exist. Also, Andy plays clarinet and there's more of your own material than ever before. What do you think? Is this record different from the previous one?

EF: Yeah, I think so. I think part of what you're hearing is just tour after tour. I mean, we don't tour every month, but every year we pretty much put in weeks here, weeks there. A lot of it, too, is my own coming to a place where I'm not afraid to be simpler. I still want to have a frame, something that directs the piece; I don't want it to be completely free. But I'm more at ease with less. I know how to make it work. I'm more familiar with the strengths of the band and how to really make the best use of everybody's abilities. I think the first two records I did [Topaz (Siam, 1997) and Skin (Siam, 1999)], I was still working from the top down—I would kind of write stuff that I heard Andy and myself playing. Then, with Quake, well, generally—specifics can disprove or prove it—I was working from more of a bass perspective. And for this new one, I found my inspiration from the percussive side. Not for all of them, but for a lot of the pieces, I went to the percussion, just as an experiment—to see what it would trigger. So I think that combined with just my feeling more comfortable and confident about the group—or just being more experienced, and having a greater understanding of what's possible—to change the music. And also, we're just getting better [laughing].

AAJ: You did the record on tour, which is a very good way to capture a band that's playing well.

EF: It can be. You say that, but the first version of this record was actually done in Italy in the middle of a tour. We were doing a two-and-a-half week tour and there were three days free in the middle. I thought, "oh, great; I'm going to write a book of music, we're going to bring it on tour, and then we're going to record it. So we did a gig, and then from that first gig on, we would start learning the new tunes the day of the concert. Halfway through, we had these days off, and I found a studio in Tuscany which wasn't expensive. So we had this fantastic three-day period where we recorded, but the sonic quality of the recording wasn't really up to it—and although I really liked the performances, there is something to having a little more time with the tunes. Some of them were pretty difficult. So that first on-tour recording didn't make it to release. So then I added a few more pieces and then on this tour, we made it happen.

AAJ: I've read the liner notes to Prowl, and they give some information about the rhythms—often African ones—that were incorporated into the compositions. That makes sense, since you've told me that you were approaching the music to some extent from a percussive angle. That's fine, and it's really interesting, but what about the melodic or harmonic content? Is there such a thing as a Topaz melody? Are there certain melodic ideas that lend themselves to this group?

EF: It's really tough to say. I guess I don't really restrict myself too much with that. I just go where I go instinctually with that—just keeping in mind that I have to outline a harmony with very few voices. So it can't be as rich as I might like to go; it's going to be pretty lean when we play it. That's the only limitation. I guess I was thinking very vocally with this record, too, at least on "Howling Circle and things like that—this vocal kind of chanting. Actually, a lot of the pieces: "Rain Bearers has a really vocal kind of sax cry in the beginning, "Anhinga is very singable. I can look at this now and see how I'm heading towards this greater simplicity. I've got a solo record coming out soon that's more of a very beautiful kind of spare, Americana thing. Very pizzicato ["pizzicato means plucking, instead of bowing, a stringed instrument]. And now I can see this as the beginning of that—moving towards expression in a scaled-down way, but still trying to make it sizzle.

AAJ: Well, I don't think there's anything even remotely condescending—in terms of simplicity—about Prowl, but I will say that in the best way, it's very melodically memorable.

EF: Well, thanks. That makes me feel that I got close to what I was after, which was more about the emotional arc of the melody and just the feeling of—well, that feeling of when you hear a great singer sing. There's nothing that communicates like that, and I was trying to get after that.

AAJ: Let's talk about some of the individual songs. "Howling Circle is the album opener. You point out in the liner notes that it's based on a Guinean coucou rhythm, which here seems like a simple one-two, one-two, but is deceptively complex.

EF: Yeah, because it's displaced in a way over the time. The rhythm achieves its full existence in the second statement of the theme—you can sort of hear it there. We tried to learn this after a late-night gig in Bologna, and it was just so frustrating. I mean, those guys get it pretty quickly, but then Andy and I had to be dragged along. And then we would get it, but unfortunately what happens with a rhythm like this is that it starts sounding like it's on the beat—you start thinking it's "bump-bump. Bump-bump. That's not it. So in the middle of a gig, Stomu and Satoshi would be looking at us, like, "what do we do? Do we move back? You'd better fix it, motherfucker.

AAJ: Well, that's just the rhythm. The melody's very memorable—maybe sort of Middle Eastern—and to me, somewhat ominous. I like how Stomu's bass changes in support of your and Andy's solos; he's sort of stalking during one and more rhythmically popping during the other.

EF: That always happens and I love that. But I want to get what Andy's getting [laughing]—so next time around I'll change the solo order, so maybe I'll get the stalking this time, or the popping, whatever. But it's great; you never know what's going to happen.

AAJ: Many of the pieces are built around the melodic unison lines between you and Andy—"Howling Circle is one. Another is "Anhinga, which is extremely elegant and lovely. Andy's on clarinet on this one and it's got a particularly nice theme. Your solo's a high point here—you go from pizzicato to bowed and Andy's clarinet weaves around you. Meanwhile, Stomu does his thing beneath. It's all pretty simple reduced to its elements, but it adds up to a really rich harvest of sound.

Erik Friedlander
Topaz, Left to Right: Stomu Takeishi, Erik Friedlander, Andy Laster, Satoshi Takeishi



EF: I do love this melody. I played with the form on this one a lot. Almost every time we pulled this one out on tour, and even in the recording session, I was changing it—trying to make the solo form really feel organic and give the soloist a chance to shape it. I think it happened on a gig once where I started pizz, and then started to mix the bow in instead of just changing from one to the other—instead, trying to mix the bowing in slowly. It seemed to work nicely.

AAJ: So a certain amount of experimentation leads up to the finished product.

EF: For this one, there was a lot. It was tricky—shaping it so you don't even notice it. So you just hear the melody, like you're talking about—so it has that feeling of freshness that it should have. And this process is pretty normal. I do that with all the tunes. One goal is to keep it really fresh for the players. When we're on tour, I like working a piece and finding out its boundaries, but I also like to, on the gig, say, "okay, we're going to do it this way now, so the musicians feel they have something else to contend with. It can bring out some interesting things.

AAJ: "Chanting is my favorite piece on the record. I find its composed melody parts pretty fantastic. Your notes explain that it's built around a seventeen-bar rhythmic pattern, which in terms of Satoshi's austere percussion, repeats—and it's all about a slow, patient build around your and Andy's counterpart improvisations before you finally hit that composed, unison melody.

EF: You pretty much nailed it.

AAJ: I love how it all happens in less than five minutes. It's remarkable that a tune can do so much, and come to such a satisfying conclusion, in such a short time.

EF: Yeah, it's like my "Bolero. This one was really hard. In fact, I abandoned it on tour at one point because we could never get it right. It's kind of a vibe; it has to be just right. Every ingredient: how long we play before we start the melody, how long before Stomu comes to the parts, how loudly we play. It's the kind of thing where we'd hit it once and then not be able to find the magic again. I'm just glad we found it in the recording session. The way that you proceed through before you get to that final big statement—if it's not right, all of a sudden you start perceiving it. You perceive every minute, and you perceive how five minutes is too long!

So that took a lot of tweaking, a lot of hoping for the right amount of improvisation and the right amount of handing back and forth of the little melody fragments that Andy and I do in the beginning in a way that was respectful of the atmosphere of the piece. So I wish I could say this was really organic, but it took a lot of concentration and tweaking. It's different from a lot of the pieces I write because it's not about a soloist jumping out and then the rhythm section just doing what they do really well, which is playing and dialoguing back and forth. It's more about this group crescendo and keeping this beautiful atmosphere. It was tricky.

AAJ: "Prowl is based upon a kundabigoya rhythm, but the players on the song are working through a mixed-meter structure that, in a funny way, makes this tune the jazziest piece here.

EF: Yeah, it does sound like that—especially the opening, right? All those harmonies.

AAJ: Yeah, and that unison alto/cello theme is almost beboppish.

EF: That's interesting. I never thought of that. Actually, I have a whole countermelody that I wrote that I kind of abandoned because I felt it was coming across too abstract. It sounded too eggheady, too intellectual. So I threw out the counterline, until the very end, when I break off. There's this little chorus where it almost sounds Steely Dan-y or something. This was another tricky one.

AAJ: There's something about this one. Andy's solo and your solo each start at a sort of zero point. For Andy's solo, the band is utterly calm at the beginning, and as his solo builds the group starts sizzling around him. But when you step up to solo, it all goes back to reset, back to zero. Then your statement has to start the waters boiling again.

EF: Right. I love that about this group. It's not really unusual—the format you describe—but I just love that the rhythm section will just say, "okay, what have you got? Then you can hear how things start taking shape. We have our predilections, but I like the way this always happens with this band, that over time we always kind of reset and see where it's going to go. Then someone will push it in one direction or another. It's great. It's like we set the vocabulary: okay, we're going to be using these words and this phrase length. Then we'll see what happens, we'll go for it. People might contribute a rhythm or harmony, and then we'll throw that up against what the piece is asking us to do. It's pretty interesting.

AAJ: "7th Sister is imbued with a sense of low unease, at least to me—it's like a nagging doubt put to music. This one really puts the rhythmic burden on you, on your arpeggiated ostinati. That gives Satoshi a lot of freedom throughout the song, and although eventually his drums do assume a more timekeeping role, you're really the primary timekeeper here.

EF: As you've been doing, you pretty much hit it. This is one piece where I took the rhythm, and instead of imagining the percussion playing it, the piece sort of germinated from this kind of cello harmony and the pizzicato thing that I've been getting into more and more on my solo front. There's something about the sound of the bass and Andy together on this one—it's a great sound that I've used a bunch of times.

AAJ: What, bass and clarinet?

EF: Yeah, it's really beautiful. The tricky part was developing it over time; it doesn't have the same kind of arc. I find myself, to my detriment, always in love with this feeling of arc—what you described as the "reset and then build thing. You know, that's universal and it has an innate power, and there's always the feeling there of telling a story. You start somewhere, and you tell a story, and that's kind of my grand paradigm. But this tune doesn't necessarily have that feeling; it's a little more timeless and a little more static. There were a few times in gigs where I actually felt a little uncomfortable how it was starting to lock up and groove and get that arc kind of feeling, and I didn't want it to have to go there. But I really like this rendition; it's really strong.

AAJ: Speaking of telling a story, "Rain Bearers has quite a narrative power. Without my describing the piece at all, I have to say that this tune taught me something you have no doubt known for a long, long time, which is how incredibly versatile the cello is as a musical instrument. Here you have a pizzicato intro that turns into a bass line, and of course there's also bowed sections. You take the role of several instruments, which is very helpful in a smaller band like this one.

EF: Well, the only reason I started this group was that I wanted to see how far I can push this: can I be in this music? Do I exist here? Some of the stuff I've written, in the beginning especially, was done because I really want to play with a rhythm section. I want to groove. I don't want to be doing free or chamber music just because I play the cello. This tune is about managing how much complexity I can invisibly incorporate as a subtext to the overall simplicity and the fresh, basic, expressive things in the music. It was a matter of finding the mesh of, say, how that bass line that's in a different time signature exists together with the cello line, moving into the next section. Yeah, I love this tune. It's another tune that's got to managed to get to that big crescendo.

AAJ: A temperamental creature.

EF: Yeah, exactly.

AAJ: Outside of any complexity within it, the tune does cook pretty powerfully and physically. Incidentally, I swear I hear some kind of loopy, almost organy sounds deep in the mix, especially during Stomu's popping, double-stopping solo.

EF: That's him! Isn't he amazing? It's so beautiful! I love that. He has this Boomerang pedal. When he first brought it in, I was like, "what's going on? He's become such an artist on it. He plays stuff, and while he's doing his job, he grabs snippets of what he's playing and then starts playing it back at different rates. It can be really high, and if you sustain it in a way and loop it, it almost creates this harmony, and it's so gorgeous. Sometimes he'll preset it before the tune—he'll have developed an idea. Other times, he'll just grab things from his own playing, just bass stuff, during the piece. He'll sculpt it and mold it and pretty soon he'll have this thing.

AAJ: He's a badass. You do one cover tune on this record, "A Closer Walk With Thee, a New Orleans funeral piece. This is the one non-original here; is this your New Orleans tribute?

EF: It's something we've been playing. I have a band—it was called Rope— with [drummer] Mike Sarin and [bassist] Hilliard Greene. I didn't write any music for this group, but we were invited to play in Berlin for an anniversary marking 9/11 along with the Ethel string quartet. They asked us to come up with some musical nod to this event, and it was very tricky, because I'm very loathe to capitalize on that, on the emotion of it. So I brought "A Closer Walk With Thee, a hymn that I remembered from being in New Orleans, and we played that with Ethyl. It was really beautiful and simple.

Erik FriedlanderSo Topaz started just doing it because it was a thing that Andy could play clarinet on and was pretty. I felt that having lived really close to 9/11, it was my own unannounced way of dealing with that in the concerts and touring around, because at the time it was sort of on everyone's lips when we were in Europe or elsewhere. It was my own private thing. So I had planned on recording it, and then the New Orleans disaster happened after we recorded it. So that was just a weird accident. I was tempted to pull the song, because I didn't know how it would seem. But it is a tribute to New Orleans, because I did spend some meaningful time there when I was a kid—I got my first cello there, I met a lot of musicians there, I learned to play the mandolin there. It's tied up in me musically in a weird way. So it's a strange accident, the implications of including that piece. But it's a beautiful piece, and tricky to find the right tone. You don't want to get too arch with that—like any sort of deconstructed "ha-ha, look what we can do. But I don't think that's how it comes across.

AAJ: Let's talk about your solo cello stuff, which is a significant part of your work. I've seen your tour DVD Vanishing Point, which documents your 2004 American/Canadian solo tour for your CD Maldoror. The DVD's full of great playing, but it's also a very good document of the disorientation of road touring, with lots of auto footage, barbecue restaurants and you sitting around backstage waiting for a venue to fill. What were your intentions producing a film like this?

EF: It was such an odd experience touring around playing solo cello. I had quite a few dates, which was great, but there is this feeling of being kind of undercover during the day, kind of incognito. You're just playing for this hour or two hours where you become sort of the most important person in the room; for the rest of the day you're just silently crossing boarders and making your way. It's odd. That's what's great about it, too: you have your day all laid out for you. You have this moment when it really matters, and so you don't have to do anything else besides exist from one heartbeat to another. I guess I was trying to document that a little bit, that kind of dislocation. I think [laughing] I was partially successful.

AAJ: Well, it's very enjoyable to watch. As a Chicagoan, I of course especially liked the Chicago footage, which I recognized immediately. I think I howled out when I spotted the Empty Bottle, which I recognized from its free-water dispenser at the bar.

EF: I had a great gig there. It was really fun. I did a solo set and then I played with [drummer] Tim Daisy and [reedman] Ken Vandermark. We just played free, without music, and it was great—really fun.

AAJ: Maldoror is your 2003 record of solo cello pieces . It's a three-way collaboration of sorts: producer Michael Montes placed selected texts from Les Chants de Maldoror by Isidore Ducasse, a nineteenth-century book beloved by the Surrealists, in front of you with some other suggestions at the time of recording. You responded with these improvised pieces.

EF: Exactly. It was his idea, basically, and it was he who encouraged me to pursue a solo record. We just happened to be in Europe at the same time, and I had a day or two to meet him in Berlin, so we arranged this recording session—where I actually also recorded his cello-piano piece. Then we had some time at the end of the day and he surprised me and said, "do you want to try this? I said, "sure. That was the process, and he was kind of my audience of one, sitting there in a chair. It was a huge studio, mostly used for orchestra. It was really cool.

AAJ: It's a gorgeous-sounding record.

EF: It is. It's amazingly well-recorded. It was fun; it was interesting to see how it worked as a kind of book of music.

AAJ: What sort of suggestions, in addition to the texts, did he give you?

EF: I don't remember! It's been a while. Probably just general, musically descriptive kinds of things. I think sometimes I would take the suggestions and sometimes I would just abandon them. It was fun because it was like a performance. I would just grab on to whatever image or string of images that I could to make a little story for myself and then include whatever he said or not, and then see what would happen.

AAJ: I do really can picture starlings "unceasingly coming and going, circulating and crisscrossing in all directions in "Flights of Starlings.

EF: That piece is a hard one to do. The big trick with this was translating it into doing it live.

AAJ: Ah, now, that's what I want to ask about. They're improvisations, but in concert they became specific, non-improvised pieces, right?

EF: Well, I really didn't even really want to confront this. But I realized that no one would want to see me read a poem again; that's not really a great live performance [laughing]—everyone can watch me read, and then I'll play. And then, do I pass the poems out, so everyone knows where I am? I had to confront how I could make it work as a gig, and I had to learn some of them. It was annoying and frustrating and I didn't really want to do it, but I sat down and transcribed the record. I picked half-a-dozen or so pieces, and I added a lot of other repertoire. I did a Santana piece, a couple of Eric Dolphy things, a Persian piece, an Abdul Wadud piece—a lot of other people's music. Because this Maldoror book of music is very dark, very intimate, and I was playing bars and clubs. I needed to have more variety. I needed to take people away from this mood so I could bring them back to it. It turned out to be a great thing for me; I just loved doing it. I have a new record in the can ready to come out, and it's really beautiful and very different. So it'll be cool.

AAJ: Would you care to contrast your approaches to playing solo with those of playing in a group setting?

EF: I can't say that I do anything different. I just do what the music is demanding that I do. The obvious difference is that there is no chance for me to step back solo. When I play with Topaz, one of the joys is not being central all the time. I can step out in front and then step back and let Satoshi or someone take a solo. It's nice to be able to be on stage but not necessarily the focus; I can gather myself and think, "okay, is my set right, do I need to change up the order? I can listen to how the tune's going and think, "okay, let's make this a bit shorter. So it's nice to step back out of the limelight. When you're playing solo, there's just not a chance. You have to do all that and be central. I would say that's the only difference. Otherwise, it's just doing what the piece needs.

AAJ: It's also perhaps less stupefyingly dull to sit around and wait with three other people before you go on. That's what struck me about the Vanishing Point DVD—I've seen all the backstage footage in rock and roll films of a bunch of guys sitting around, but never before have I seen the situation of just one musician waiting around.

EF: Oh, it's awful. Not only that, but it's you and the presenter—there's no buffer. You may end up having to have dinner with the presenter. At least when you're traveling with a group, you're traveling with a little bit of a family—you can bring a little of your own turf with you. But it's tough when you're solo.

AAJ: It's very vulnerable.

EF: Totally. That scene in the video was particularly funny to me when I look back, because I was doing a door gig. If nobody showed up, I wasn't going to get paid anything! So I'm sitting there, it's twenty of nine, and there's nobody there. I'm thinking, "okay, this is Oakland, there's got to be some people coming. Of course, they all show late and it works out fine. But when you're by yourself, it's all on you, and the presenter's just looking at you [laughing], like, "why did I hire you? When you're with your band, you can at least commiserate together.

AAJ: Let's talk about your Grains of Paradise record. This is a CD released in 2001 on Tzadik Records' Radical Jewish Culture series. It's got Satoshi, bassist Trevor Dunn, guitarist Bryce Dessner on some of it, and three violinists—Joyce Hammann, Karen Milne and Peter Rovit. You mixed this one yourself. This is gorgeous, melodic stuff with lush but noncloying strings on some of the pieces, and another great rhythm section. The strings here remind me of some Mideastern pop records, and you're the primary soloist on these pieces. What was the concept behind this project?

EF: Well, you nailed it: it was Mideastern pop. That, and Bollywood, and I was listening to [Lebanese pop star] Nawal Al-Zoghbi. I had sort of an intense year of listening to this stuff. I've forgotten some of the names, but I was listening to Lebanese pop, Israeli pop. And also some of the Bollywood things with the big strings, which are unison, and the way they punctuated the lead vocal, which was mostly a female singer. The singer would sing and this whole mass of strings would come in and comment, comment, and it was very rhythmic and very undocile—not about laying down lush harmonies, although I'm all for that. It was much more aggressive and participatory, and I really wanted to do something like that. So that's what this record is about. It's 70% that, and then there's this mystical, pretty, Jewish side. And it all kind of melds in that zone.

AAJ: I like Trevor Dunn on acoustic bass, which he plays throughout this CD. I always think of him as an electric player because of bands like Fantomas and Mr. Bungle.

EF: He mostly is, but, you know, he moved to New York and he played in [John Zorn's acoustic] Masada a few times—I remember seeing him subbing for Greg [Cohen]. Actually, Greg subbed for him on a gig we did in Poland. Unfortunately, with this record, which demands ten violins, I don't get to perform it much. But I did get a chance with the Krakow Symphony, and then I brought [guitarist] Brad Shepik and [violinist] Karla Kihlsted and Greg Cohen—so I could share the soloing duties. The first time I did it, it was kind of every tune, cello solo. It was just getting too much.

AAJ: So you say "ten violins. Does that mean the three violinists did overdubbed parts on the actual record to make one massive, unison violin thing?

EF: Yeah. Exactly. Each tune is different, but there are ten individual parts for each piece.

AAJ: Is your band Chimera [of Friedlander, clarinetist Chris Speed, bassist Drew Gress and bass clarinetist Andrew D'Angelo] still working or existing in any way?

EF: No. It's defunct. I loved what I did with that group, but I kept reading reviews about "chambery —you know, this idea of classical-meets-jazz. I'd hit a point where that was the last thing I wanted to do. That was the genesis of getting Topaz going: I wanted to play with a rhythm section. It's just too easy to do that chamber thing, so that was kind of the end of Chimera and the beginning of Topaz.

AAJ: Well, it may be too easy, but it's also too easy for music writers to refer to anything that has a cello as "chambery. I suppose reading that word started to make you cringe.

EF: Oh, totally. It's totally exactly the opposite of what I want to do. You know, I was classically trained, but I'm trying to find out what other kinds of music this instrument can play. Especially in these days of crossover artists doing everything italicized or in quotation marks: "jazz, "world —where they're just reading parts, they're not really improvisers. It's not so interesting to me.

AAJ: Tell me about your new band Broken Arm with bassist Kermit Driscoll and drummer Mike Sarin. I think [vibes player] Bryan Carrott's also in the group?

EF: Sometimes.

AAJ: I believe this is a further exploration of playing pizzicato.

EF: Yeah. Although now I'm starting to add bowed to the soloing part of it. But this is a really overtly jazz project, and it's something I've been waiting to do. I've been collecting cello-and-jazz discographies and transcriptions of pieces for years—because I really wanted to do this, I know it's in me, and I did study this music, after all. I worked for years and years to be able to negotiate jazz music and changes and time. I have these skills, but I couldn't find a way to make it feel organic. Then I finally decided—I just want to write a book of music that's from this kind of sunny, Oscar Pettiford pizzicato cello as my launching point [bassist Pettiford dealt with a broken arm by switching to pizzicato, retuned cello, essentially introducing the instrument to the jazz world]—don't do any of his music, but use that as my kind of model.

And also use the small-group Herbie Nichols stuff—I listened to a lot of that. So I figured out how to write medium-tempo tunes and gradually—very gradually—I have written about twenty-five tunes. So if you ever see this concert, you'll see me looking back, but I also look forward. This group is ready to record, and I'm just looking for the right situation for it, because I really feel like I need to get it out there. I do want to establish my cred as someone who can do this, and I think it's a really optimistic kind of joyous project that I really love playing in. We did a very successful tour in Italy and Portugal last November. It's small-group jazz filtered through my own perspective. It's really been a blast.

AAJ: I'm always impressed by your cello technique. It's daunting. But I always get the impression that you make sure your technique is serving your pieces, not vice-versa. I don't think you waste time showing off your chops. Is this just a question of taste or do you ever have to think about not overplaying—do you ever have to reorient yourself more to a piece's content?

Erik FriedlanderEF: Well, I guess I compare myself to some of the violinists that I know or play with—Zbigniew [Seifert] or Mark Feldman or someone like that. I wish I could make the technique more central, but I don't actually feel like I have it to do it, not at least compared with them. I guess I also feel really strongly about the emotional impact of playing. That's what I'm really about and what I love to do. So I think I try to lead with that, and that leads to things that are less technically virtuosic and more expressive. I was thinking about this today. Because I go to Italy a lot to tour, I'm trying to learn Italian, and I came across this word "improvvisamente —so you think, oh, that means "improvised. But it means "suddenly. And I thought of that word "suddenly, and I thought that's what improvisation should be like: it should be sudden. And I'm going for those moments. If I think back about a gig, I hate deconstructing: "oh, then we did this and you should have done that. I just think about moments. Did we have moments? Did we have enough moments of things happening? If we did, I count that as a good night. That's pretty much the priority..

AAJ: Not a priority at all to have if you're interesting in making art that touches other human beings.

EF: Right. That's the idea. And sometimes I think that that pushes me to try too hard—to try to push things around to make it happen. But I don't think that's such a terrible thing.

AAJ: Okay, you've got this Broken Arm project, and a solo CD recorded that's ready to be released. Are you doing anything else this year?

EF: Gosh, I don't think so. Broken Arm is the next priority to get in the can, and I'm going to be touring with Topaz—I hope. It's very tough, the touring in the States. Probably Europe. Then the solo record comes out in September, so that'll spawn a whole other bit of solo touring. I'm going to do a solo record for [John] Zorn, too, later in the year. Oh, and I have this duo—I'm working with this Italian composer named Teho Teardo. We do stuff together, too, so we have a record coming out.


Selected Discography

Erik Friedlander, Prowl (Cryptogramophone, 2006)
Clogs, Stick Music (Brassland, 2004)
Erik Friedlander, Maldoror (Brassland, 2003)
Erik Friedlander Quake (Cryptogramophone, 2003)
Tim Sparks, At the Rebbe's Table (Tzadik, 2002)
Dave Douglas, Witness (Bluebird, 2001)
Erik Friedlander, Grains of Paradise (Tzadik, 2001)
Ellery Eskin, Vanishing Point (HatOLOGY, 2001)
Erik Friedlander, Skin (Siam, 2000)
Ellery Eskin, Ramifications (HatOLOGY, 2000)
John Zorn, Taboo and Exile (Tzadik, 1999)
Erik Friedlander, Topaz (Siam, 1998)
Dave Douglas, Convergence (Soul Note, 1998)
John Zorn, The Circle Maker (Tzadik, 1998)
Mike Patton, Pranzo Oltranzista (Tzadik, 1997)
Erik Friedlander/Chimera, The Watchman (Tzadik, 1996)
Erik Friedlander/Chimera, Chimera (Avant, 1995)
Dave Douglas, Parallel Worlds (Soul Note, 1993)



Selected Videography

Erik Friedlander, Vanishing Point: a Road Journal (Arconomics, 2005)
Erik Friedlander, Skin (Siam, 2000)

Related Article: Cello Ahead - An Interview with Erik Friedlander (2003)

Photo Credits:
Top photo: Kurt Gellersted
Photo of Topaz: Ashley Thayer
Color Image Friedlander in Performance: Peter Gannushkin
B&W Image Friedlander in Performance: Emiliano Neri



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