When a cello is your calling card, it is only to be expected that the "chamber jazz" label will tend to follow you aroundand so it has for Erik Friedlander, although that term hardly does justice to the variegated possibilities he sets in motion through his assorted projects. Having worked with a "who's who" list of cutting-edge musicians including Myra Melford, Dave Douglas, Sylvie Courvoisier, John Zorn, and countless others including artists well outside the jazz world such as the Mountain Goats and Courtney Love, he's proven himself far more malleable than facile pigeonholing would suggest. His own recording dates, especially those for his own label, Skipstone Records, have generally featured small ensembles, but that is principally a reflection of his penchant for close collaboration rather than adhering to a narrowly conceived chamber aesthetic. This is amply evident on A Queens' Firefly, a follow-up to 2018's Artemisia, with one of his most compelling quartet configurations and an exceptionally wide-ranging set of music.
Friedlander calls this group The Throw, and it comprises pianist Uri Caine, bassist Mark Helias, and drummer Ches Smith, all musicians with resumes just as long and impressive as Friedlander's, and with like-minded instincts to make music beyond category. From the opening bars of the title-track opener, the first thing one notices is its graceful melody: an expressive tune presented by Friedlander alongside Caine, before ceding ground for solos from Helias and Caine until the leader finally gets his own solo statement. A folk-like quality contributes to the song's catchy appeal, and it is characteristic of much of the music on the album: eight concise, three to five-minute pieces that do not overstay their welcome, allowing for potent melodies to emerge and serve as the foci for reflective improvisation. "Glimmer" works this vein quite well, this time over a steady groove, while "Little Daily Miracles" is another gem, with an earworm of a tune that beguiles and charms.
But it is not just the gentle lilt of these softly-keening melodies that draws one into this music. All four musicians also bring a fierce spirit of adventure to the proceedings. So on the sprightly "Match Strikes," an odd-meter freneticism prevails, with Friedlander showcasing the full extent of his powers on his instrument, from feisty pizzicato attacks to a searing arco solo, while the others revel in the piece's driving urgency. And the album's closer, "The Fire in You," is even more assertive, with a zesty spirit that propels both Friedlander and Caine into torrid solos. Proving that it is entirely possible to combine a basic love of melody with an uncompromising jazz sensibility, A Queens' Firefly is another first-rate effort from this under-recognized quartet.
A Queens’ Firefly; Match Strikes; Chandelier; Glimmer; Little Daily Miracles; Aurora; A Simple Radiance; The Fire in You.
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