While cellist Erik Friedlander's last release with his Topaz quartet, Quake (Cryptogramophone, 2003), was a more cosmopolitan affair, Prowl is more localized. Emphasizing African rhythms, largely from percussionist Satoshi Takeishi's unusual hybrid of traditional drums and assorted percussion esoterica, this may be Topaz's most focused release to date.
That's not to say there isn't plenty of diversity, nor should the group's stress of African rhythms suggest any kind of conventional world music approach. Topaz has always had a distinctive sound, and the front line of Friedlander's cello and Andy Laster's alto saxophone sometimes blends so completely that it sounds like a single instrument. Stomu Takeishi's elasticity on fretless electric bass and brother Satoshi's eclectic percussion approach create powerful grooves that are nevertheless anything but rigid.
Cellists are a rarity in jazz, but when it comes to improvisational prowess, Friedlander shares an even more select group with artists including Hank Roberts and Fred Lonberg-Holm. But Friedlander is most often recruited for the broadest possible contexts, from Fred Hersch's Leaves of Grass (Palmetto, 2005) and Michael Brecker's Wide Angles (Verve, 2003) to the popular Masada String Trio. Friedlander's ability to range from jagged edges to softer corners makes it possible for him to sound completely in context on material that ranges from the whirling dervish-like "Najime to the gentle yet rhythmically propulsive beauty of "Anhinga and "Chanting, where the simple changes evolve from a close look to a more expansive view.
Friedlander and Laster's playful interaction is remarkable. Sometimes they move together with a single voice, elsewhere winding in and around each other only to find meeting points at times intended, elsewhere serendipitous.
Friedlander's compositions are rooted in form. The dark "7th Sister is a strong example, with the cellist's pizzicato notes creating the pulse while clarinet and bass gradually evolve its elliptical theme, leaving the percussion free to be more exploratory and textural.
But despite Friedlander's structural writing, there's plenty of room to stretch. Stomu Takeishi's solo on the lengthy and episodic "Rain combines sharp percussive thrusts and melodic conceits that evolve from clear precedence. Friedlander and Laster's tandem improvisation that follows is the perfect confluence of controlled chaos and lyrical forethought. And yet there's always a hook to hang one's hat on. Topaz may go to unexpected and dramatic places, as they do on the paradoxical darkness and light of "A Dangerous Game, but there's always a foundationsometimes blatant, other times extremely subtleto maintain forward motion.
This group's ability to gradually evolve a piece is no clearer than on its reworking of the traditional "A Closer Walk With Thee the only non-Friedlander track on Prowl. The Takeishi brothers hover around a fixed groove without ever quite establishing it, while Friedlander and Laster manage to make the familiar melody malleable, stretching it every which way.
Topaz always has something new to say within the context of its established sound. The members of this group may not convene often, but when they do, it's always magic.
Personnel: Erik Friedlander: cello; Andy Laster: alto saxophone, clarinet; Stomu Takeishi: electric bass; Satoshi Takeishi: percussion.