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Erik Friedlander: Cello Ahead


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People seem not to know what to expect when you sit down in a band with a cello. Many after a concert come and tell me 'Oh, Cello is my favorite instrument!' It is both a compliment and a curse: they seem to really love the lyrical, warm, beautiful side of the cello. That's fine but there's also this whole other kind of playing that I am into.
Together with artists like Ernst Reijseger, Vincent Courtois, Peggy Lee, Fred Lonberg-Holm or Rufus Cappadocia, Erik Friedlander is one of the 'new wave' of cellists in jazz and improvised music. Oscar Pettiford, Harry Babasin, Sam Jones and Ray Brown pioneered the introduction of cello in jazz, but they mainly were bassists (like later Ron Carter, Buell Neidlinger and Dave Holland). Innovators like Chico Hamilton, Eric Dolphy, Albert Ayler and Julius Hemphill, envisaged a greater role for the cello relying on Fred Katz, Nat Gershman, Ron Carter, Joel Friedman or Abdul Wadud to break new grounds. The next generation, Trinstan Honsinger, Tom Cora, David Eyges, Hank Roberts, showed how, despite mainstream's neglect, cello could greatly contribute to the developments of the jazz's vanguard. With Erik Friedlander and his contemporaries, cello has come full circle. They have proven the versatility of this instrument and are not seen anymore as cellists that improvise, but as improvisers that happen to play the cello in a jazz world ever more open to other music traditions, new sounds and instruments. Erik Friedlander's musical path started early in his life. Whereas most young kids are told by their parents to decrease the volume of their stereos, Erik was used to wake up with the loud music his father Lee was playing in the dark room where he developed pictures.

Erik Friedlander: My father spent a lot of his working years photographing for record companies, mainly Atlantic Records, [his pictures adorn seminal albums like In a Silent Way, Giant Steps, My Favorite Things, This Is Our Music, Blues and Roots, The New Tristano ]. Early in the morning he'd be in the dark room playing loud music: Bach, R&B, lots of jazz... So I grew up waking up to music that came blasting from the living room. I started guitar early, 1st/2nd grade; in 3rd grade I went to a public school that offered music courses, as they did at that time; they gave me the choice between violin and cello. I picked the cello and I still don't know why; maybe the teacher thought that I was tall. I went home and started making awful noises. I never took it too seriously until at 20 I met Harvie Swartz, the great bassist who played with Stan Getz. He told me about a group he had with cello and he invited me to his loft and we just started working. This experience opened up my ears and my brain and made me understand what was possible.

AAJ: To what degree did being seen as a 'cellist' rather than just a jazz musician or improviser, when you were playing improvised music, frustrate you?

EF: For me it was more about just not being very happy with what I was doing. After playing with Harvie Swartz and his group I became inactive. I had no jobs improvising. I had to work like a bank teller or a copy editor but my goal was to work as a musician so I became much more of a classical in symphony orchestras, chamber groups' By the age of 30 I was very busy but very unhappy because I was not doing creative music. At that point I consciously decided that I needed a change. I just had to do it. I was not worried about if other musicians had done it before. People seem not to know what to expect when you sit down in a band with a cello. Many after a concert come and tell me "Oh, cello is my favorite instrument!" It is both a compliment and a curse: they seem to really love the lyrical, warm, beautiful side of the cello. That's fine but there's also this whole other kind of playing that I am into.

AAJ: Cello is a versatile instrument. It can be used for lead parts, as well as a harmonic and rhythmic instrument. It is hard to understand the reasons why it has been such a late bloomer in the field of jazz and improvised music. Maybe if a charismatic player like Coleman Hawkins had stuck to playing the cello (a little known fact to all those who know him exclusively as a saxophonist) a different path would have ensued for this instrument.

EF: The cello is a hard instrument: slower than a violin and difficult to put in a jazz setting, especially with the bow. The lack of a charismatic figure may be part of the explanation but 'when jazz was jazz'' people were in love with the trumpet, sax, piano, bass, drums, and trombone. They were not missing anything. It took people like Eric Dolphy, Chico Hamilton and others who experienced what stereotypical jazz could mean, to look at cello as one of the ways to innovate. It's interesting to hear all of it. Fred Katz, the first cello player to pick up the bow and try to make it suitable instrument was certainly influential: listening to another cellist wrestle trying to fit into jazz, and realizing how difficult that could be. Hearing Abdul Wadud with Julius Hemphill is always exciting: a band concept in which the cello had an integral role. Hearing some of the early free players, like Joel Friedman with Charles Tyler, was also important. It showed the courage of musicians who threw themselves into those situations. More recently it was amazing listening to players writing their own music, arranging it and creating worlds for themselves was incredibly exciting: Hank Roberts and Ernst Reijseger, such a gifted player, able to play with all the tools: the bow and pizzicato, and theatrics and imagination.

AAJ: Musicians dread the 'desert island' question. Asking it to Erik Friedlander was unavoidable: everybody knows the great saxophone, or trumpet, or piano, players and can guess which of them is a favorite of the contemporary players; it's harder to know much about fundamental cello jazz albums.

EF: My Little Cello by Oscar Pettiford is not only a beautiful record, but also a record that was conceived to revolve around the cello. It marked the beginning of cellist leader-composers. It featured Phil Urso, Julius Watkins, Walter Bishop, Charles Mingus, Percy Brice.

AAJ: During the '80s, jazz journalists -striving to find something that may enliven a lame phase in this music's history and thinking that the solution could not be found in the music itself but in preposterous rivalries of the "Beatles vs. the Rolling Stones" kind -portrayed the jazz scene as highly polarized: 're-boppers' ' la Marsalis vs. 'radical innovators' ' la Zorn. Regardless of the reliability of this imagery, it cannot be denied that the last decade has witnessed a jazz scene characterized by a greater synthesis of styles, approaches and instruments. Cellists like Erik Friedlander have been at the forefront of this phenomenon, probably because coming from a classical background and moving towards improvised music they were -by definition -used to the effort of trying to bridge the divide between apparently irreconcilable worlds.

EF: The problem -and at the same time the golden opportunity -for cello players in this music is that we have no huge tradition or overarching figures like John Coltrane or Sonny Rollins looking over our shoulders. We are freer to try and find our own way, just because we have to. Of course, that's great and difficult at the same time.

AAJ:The habit of thinking 'out of the box' that characterized Erik Friedlander's career explains the originality -and complexity -of his various projects, exemplified by unusual line-ups that go well beyond the 'soloist plus rhythm section' format and by a multi-layered sophistication in the compositions.

EF: My goal as a bandleader is to show how great the band is. I clearly want to make sure that my musical ideas get across to the audience, but at the same time it's crucial for me that everybody in the band can feel that they can shine in the music setting that I've put them in.

AAJ: Chimera (with Chris Speed, Drew Gress, Andrew D'Angelo) has been the first project led by Erik Friedlander to find accurate documentation on record. His efforts however are now focused on his quartet Topaz.

EF: My working band is the quartet TOPAZ with Andy Laster on saxophone, Stomu Takeishi on bass and Satoshi Takeishi on percussion, with which I'll play at the Arles Festival in May. At the same time I'm still working with John Zorn and Dave Douglas. With Dave we have a very interesting project we just did in Koln, a concerto for trumpet cello and percussion, with Mike Sarin. I'm also working in trio with Sylvie Courvoisier and Mark Feldman. My latest project—Grains of Paradise—features cello, bass, percussion, guitar and ten violins. It is influenced by the stories of spice caravans that traveled dangerous routes to reach Europe as well as modern Middle Eastern pop music.

AAJ:The higher degree of synthesis of today's jazz doesn't rest only on a higher integration between old and new, but also on the increasing openness towards other musical traditions. Interest for African, Latin American or Eastern music can be found throughout jazz's history but it reached an unprecedented peak in the '90s. The stereotypical 'melting pot,' New York, served as the perfect incubator for a trend that at time bordered 'fashion.' One particular strain of the phenomenon—side by side with the explosion of the 'balkanized jazz' of bands like Pachora -was that of the Jewish-tinged jazz in which Erik Friedlander also participated.

EF: New York always had a very active and thoughtful Jewish community. The reason I got involved in this Jewish musical revival is because of John Zorn. Jazz is only one paradigm of improvisation, but there are all these other cultures that have their own improvised music. Many of us find great inspiration in this. I'm looking for truthful ways to express my personality through music and I'm finding new starting points in other traditions. There is a traditional and a popular use of strings in the music of the Middle East and India, especially the way they use violin sections. I'm totally turned on by what they do: the violins become aggressively rhythmic, like another percussion instrument-it's amazing! There truly is a community of musicians here interested in this diversity: if I hire three musicians from the New York area and I bring in Iranian pieces, or Sephardic music, or my own music there is no problem for them. In practice, though, everyone's music in this scene is very different. You can't compare Andy Laster's Lessness to my Topaz, to Chris Speed's' to Jim Black's group' to John Zorn's Masada, even though some of these bands are made of the same musicians. They all bring themselves to the music and deliver an exciting performance, but also perfectly understand what the composer is after.

Photo Credit: Angelo Mirindino



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