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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."

These are attributes that could just as easily describe Friedlander's playing, but one of the differences between the two cellists, stylistically speaking, was Pettiford's liking for fast tempi—hardly surprising given his position as one of the original beboppers and the musical fashion of his time.

"Nowadays we're used to extraordinary musicianship," explains Friedlander, "but in his day Pettiford impressed people even more because not only had he an ability to play fast tempi but he wanted to solo when a lot of bass players were there to kind of support the soloists. In Birdland, when they would finish a fast tune and get ready to play the head Oscar would say 'Wait a minute, the bassist's going to get some.'"

Pettiford left his mark in the bands of Charlie Barnett, Dizzy Gillespie, Ellington—with whom he played from 1945-1948—and Woody Herman but it was arguably at the head of his own bands in the decade of the 1950s that Pettiford's lasting legacy was forged. Albums such as The New Oscar Pettiford Sextet (Debut, 1953), Oscar Pettiford (Bethlehem, 1954) and Another One (Bethlehem, 1955) established his reputation as composer, leader and bassist/cellist of notable talent.

Friedlander's approach to Pettiford's tunes on Oscalypso combined elements of the non-conventional—a cello and saxophone front line and no chordal instrument—with the conventional: "In terms of arrangements I went with a kind of traditional approach." The upcoming European tour, however, offers Friedlander the opportunity to experiment a bit more. "On this tour I'm bringing some new arrangements that are a little more outside and a little more my own personal taste."

Choosing which of Pettiford's tunes to include on Oscalypso gave Friedlander food for thought: "I was trying to find tunes that told the best story in terms of sequence on the record, even though people hardly listen that way these days. Pettiford wrote a lot of medium-up tempo tunes and so I needed to find variety within the small gradations of tempo -tunes that had their own special quality. It kind of shows off his writing in a lot of ways."

At the same time as learning more about Pettiford's music, Friedlander research, for want of a better term, has revealed some interesting insights into the bassist/cellist of mixed Choctaw, Cherokee and African-American lineage, born in Okmulgee, Oklahoma in 1922.

"I found out that he perhaps had perfect pitch, which made a lot of sense to me because he plays with such perfect intonation," says Friedlander. "When he was coming up he was first like a kind of singer/dancer with his father Doc Pettiford's band. Then he became a pianist, which is maybe where he started getting his perfect pitch. Evidently he would yell at the saxophone section if they were out of tune or played off-beat when he was working with the big bands like Woody Herman or Charlie Barnett. I can't imagine he was too rambunctious with Ellington, who was like a god."

Perfect pitch may seem like every musician's dream, but Friedlander offers a different perspective. "Pettiford was probably a little tortured by intonation variances because perfect pitch is like a gift and a curse at the same time. You can't help but hear the pitch exactly the way you think it's supposed to be."

Even had Pettiford sought out other musicians with perfect pitch the frustrations might not have stopped there. "I've been in rehearsals with two people with perfect pitch and they don't hear the note the same way," Friedlander laughs. "It's close. It's really close, but it's not the same."

More revealing perhaps, is the notion that Pettiford felt himself to be somewhat short-changed by the industry. "I found out that Pettiford was quite tortured at not getting the recognition he thought he deserved," recounts Friedlander. "He was playing with Dizzy, he was splaying with Bird, with Monk, with Ellington and he was winning all the jazz polls but he wasn't getting the fees that Dizzy was getting. It's just kind of the nature of the business but you couldn't tell him that. He quit Dizzy's band on numerous occasions and finally one time left for good."

Just a couple of years before hooking up with Gillespie in 1943—a band co-led by Pettiford—Pettiford had almost given up playing bass, frustrated at his inability to make a decent living. "Yeah, he was going to quit," affirms Friedlander. "He wanted to be a doctor like his father."

Such a crisis of confidence, or disillusionment with the music business is common enough among musicians. Friedlander is no exception. "My career-confidence crisis was less a kind of moment, though many of them are like that too. For me, it was just trying to find my way and my place in the music world. My answer to the crisis was 'I'm going to be as relevant as possible' and that meant for me to do all kinds of work. I was playing in orchestras, I was playing on Broadway, I was doing recording sessions. I wanted to make a living as a musician and so I got just kind of too busy and I was becoming miserable because I was playing in situations that weren't creatively satisfying."

For Friedlander the solution lay simply in refocusing and "pairing away the work that wasn't meaningful to me." Pettiford's answer to his own crisis of confidence is more the stuff of jazz myth and legend. It's a matter of historical speculation as to what, or rather who, convinced Pettiford not to quit music and instead make his way to New York. Being discovered is the dominant version of events, though more than one version of the story exists, as Friedlander attests: "Three different musicians have the same story about having discovered Pettiford in Minneapolis."

The three in question were Milt Hinton, Howard McGhee and Chubby Jackson. "They all have the same story of going to hear the Doc Pettiford family band on a day off and just being totally wowed by this bassist. Hinton said he counselled Pettiford to go to New York. They all probably crossed paths with Pettiford at that time but they've kind of adopted each other's stories."

Regardless, in a short space of time Pettiford established himself in New York as one of the top jazz bassists. His well-documented adoption of the cello came about as the result of a broken arm, which meant he had to give up the bass while his arm mended. It's the sort of happenstance that can completely redirect a musician's career—as was the case with Pettiford—and something that Friedlander can relate to.
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