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Erik Friedlander: A Little Cello?

Ian Patterson By

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[Oscar] Pettiford’s tunes are very special. They have a clarity about them, a beautiful, almost Mozartian clarity. —Erik Friedlander
Normally lumped into the 'miscellaneous instruments' category of jazz awards, the cello has been something of a bit player in the colorful history of jazz. That said, today there are arguably more cellists in jazz and contemporary improvised music—and some extraordinary ones at that—than ever before. One of the best known cellists is undoubtedly Erik Friedlander, whose discography as a leader straddles acoustic jazz, film soundtracks, Americana roots, literature-inspired improvisations, extended suites, avant-garde/contemporary classical music, and compositions inspired by ancient Arabic, Latin and Hebrew texts.

Friedlander is very much the epitome of the modern-day cellist, but of late he has turned his eye to the past.

At the end of 2015 Friedlander released Oscalypso, his lyrical homage to Oscar Pettiford, who, following in the footsteps of Jimmy Blanton, became one of the early modernisers of jazz bass in Duke Ellington's orchestra. But Pettiford was also a jazz cellist, doubling on the instrument in the last decade of his short life and Friedlander's tribute is not only a reminder of Pettiford's brilliance, but of the cello's historic place in jazz.

Speaking of Oscalypso and the tradition of the cello in jazz ahead of a European tour, Friedlander said: "This is kind of reasserting the legacy we have, even though it's not vast. I wanted to do a jazz record that was more in the traditional vein and I just found the context that made sense. I just love Pettiford's music. It's beautiful."

Whilst Pettiford might not have been the first jazz cellist—that accolade belongs to Harry Babasin, who recorded the first jazz cello solos in 1947 with the Dodo Marmarosa Trio—he was surely the most significant. Joachim E. Berendt, the renowned jazz writer/producer, described Pettiford as "the man who gave the cello its place in jazz."

Friedlander's own relationship to Pettiford's music stretches back long before even Broken Arm Trio (Skipstone, 2008), a recording inspired by Pettiford's cello work and Herbie Nichols's music. "It goes back to trying to find an identity as a jazz cellist, back to those early days when I was still figuring out what I was trying to do, looking for role models and finding one with Oscar Pettiford—the first really great, creative musician who put a cello in the centre of the band and said 'here I am, let's build around this.'"

For this project Friedlander's cello is at the centre of a band featuring Trevor Dunn, Michael Sarin and Michael Blake. Dunn and Sarin were perhaps shoe-ins, their respective associations with Friedlander dating back some twenty years, while saxophonist Blake first hooked up with Friedlander for the Oscalypso project. Blake, Friedlander explains, was a natural fit: "He has a great feel for the history of the tenor sound back in that time but he's got a very modern harmonic feel and he kind of treads the line really nicely between the two, so I thought he was a good candidate for this project. He's a great guy too. It'll be fun."

The tour, which begins at the end of January in Romania, also takes in Germany, Belgium, Italy, Ireland and Austria. "I've been touring it around the States a little bit on the east coast but this is the first tour in Europe," says Friedlander. We're pretty excited."

The bulk of the tour set list will feature the Pettiford tracks Friedlander recorded on Oscalypso, with perhaps one or two surprises thrown in. Pettiford, for all his status as one of the giants of his instruments, was not a prolific writer. "He didn't write a lot of tunes," Friedlander relates, "maybe thirty tunes or so that we know of."

Relatively few perhaps, but less, so the saying goes, is often more. "Pettiford's tunes are very special," enthuses Friedlander. "They have a clarity about them, a beautiful, almost Mozartian clarity. Then there are these kind of sentimental tunes that are beautiful too."

For Friedlander, the beautifully melodious and lyrical veins that run through Pettiford's compositions seem a little at odds with a sometimes abrasive personality. "He had a tumultuous life, you know, getting into fights and drinking. Musicians were a little afraid to hang out with him because he had a nose for trouble, he'd get into fights on the subway. But none of that comes across in his music. All you get is the clarity."

What aspect of Pettiford's music first attracted Friedlander? "Mainly it was his writing and how he integrated the cello into his leadership role of the band, but his way of playing is impeccable. He's just got fantastic time and beautiful intonation, so just on a purely technical level he's quite impressive."

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