Erik Friedlander At National Concert Hall, Dublin

Ian Patterson By

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Erik Friedlander
Kevin Barry Room, National Concert Hall
Dublin, Ireland
February 4, 2017

The sense of privilege was inescapable. To be one of a small number of people present at an intimate performance of music so beautiful felt like a royal invitation.

Cellist Erik Friedlander was born the year that Oscar Pettiford died, in 1960, and although nearly half a century has elapsed since Pettiford's death at the age of thirty eight—when he was really getting into his stride—his music, as Friedlander and his quartet demonstrated with passion and flair, sounds as vibrant as ever.

Friedlander was in Dublin courtesy of Note Productions, one of Ireland's premier promotors of jazz/improvised music. The two nights in the NCH were part of a larger European tour promoting the music of Oscar Pettiford, which Friedlander paid handsome homage to on Oscalypso (Skipstone Records, 2015). Pettiford didn't write that many compositions, but he was, as Friedlander explained, "one of the first great jazz artists to take the cello, put it at the centre and build the band around it."

The band's false start to "Cello Again" was the only blip on an otherwise exemplary performance. Friedlander's plucked intro to "Cello Again—a reminder that Pettiford was firstly a double bassist—provided the melody for saxophonist Michael Blake, who quickly dissected it in a melodically flowing improvisation. Friedlander followed suit before bassist Trevor Dunn and drummer Michael Sarin exchanged brief salvos, but as with most Pettiford tunes, the defining melody was what stuck in the mind.

Having gravitated to New York in the 1940s, Pettiford made his name alongside the beboppers, and a lot of his tunes from that period reflect the idiom of that time; the elegant, mid-tempo "Bohemia After Dark"—Pettiford's title a reference to the short-lived Greenwich village jazz club Café Bohemia—being one such example. Friedlander's unaccompanied, plucked introduction to this tune, almost flamenco-esque, was captivating.

An unrelenting bass ostinato provided the backbone to "Swinging til the Girls Come Home," a vehicle for Blake, and Friedlander on bow, to stretch out. Though these two manned the front line, the driving rhythmic compass provided by Dunn and Sarin was a vital component of the bustling chemistry. Sarin was as interesting to watch as he was to listen to, adding subtly modulating textures to the folds and contours of the music. On "An Unhappy Man," he switched back and forth from two hands to hand and brush, then two brushes, and finally, stick and mallet.

Though Pettiford was known for his sometimes volatile, conflictive temperament—he allegedly slugged Charles Mingus—there was, as Friedlander noted, a deeply sentimental side to the musician. This tenderness was repeatedly evident, notably on the lovely duo of songs, "Tamaplais Love Song" and "Two Little Pearls." In an interview with All About Jazz just prior to this tour, Friedlander described Pettiford's music as having "an almost Mozartian clarity"—a comparison that made perfect sense listening to these harmonically elegant blues tunes of almost classical structure.

Though a musician with perfect pitch, Pettiford was unable to read or write music, which was, Friedlander suggested, the most likely reason why Pettiford wasn't a more prolific composer. One musician who aided Pettiford in this endeavour was Lucky Thompson, and Frieldander's quartet played two Pettiford compositions with a Thompson link -the bop-flavored numbers "OP Meets LT" and "Tricotism"—both of which Thompson recorded.

Friedlander's original "OP Meets Fela" was the cellist's musical response to the question what would have resulted had Pettiford lived and gone on to collaborate with, say, Fela Kuti? Infectious rhythms and expansive soloing were perhaps to be expected, but there was nothing predictable about the quartet's agile shifts in gear nor in Sarin's cracking stick work—bustling and brilliant.

By contrast, "My Little Cello" belonged to a more melodically defined era of jazz. On Blake's album Tiddy Boom (Sunnyside Records, 2014), the New York-based Canadian paid homage to Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins, and there was perhaps a little of both in the exquisite solo—lyrical and robust—that he carved out on this mellifluous tune.

Cello, appropriately enough, was centre-stage for the set closer "Oscalypso," Friedlander moving from strumming accompanist to uninhibited protagonist, his free-wheeling bowed improvisation soaring on Dunn and Sarin's powerful rhythmic currents. A sustained standing ovation was rewarded with an encore of "Blues in the Closet," a number boasting one of Pettiford's most distinctive melodic heads. Dunn's fast-walking bass and Sarin's propulsive brushes laid the foundation for brief closing statements from all, and the musicians then filed out of the room to another standing ovation.

Had Pettiford not died so tragically young the accolades and industry recognition would surely have come, placing him firmly in the pantheon of jazz greats. This great innovator and leader was, in his own day, a jazz master, and thanks to Friedlander—a modern-day cello master—Pettiford's glorious music continues to reach new audiences around the world.

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