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Erik Friedlander: Complexity, Simplicity and Arc

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Erik FriedlanderArguably the premier cellist in improvised music, New York musician Erik Friedlander has played with John Zorn, Dar Williams, Clogs, Laurie Anderson, Dave Douglas and Hole. His own groups have run the gamut from the chamber jazz—"chamber being a term Friedlander's come to loathe—of Chimera to the improvisational groove of Topaz. He's also a fine solo cellist who performs frequently, and fruitfully, in that setting. His new Topaz CD Prowl is the best recording yet from that band, and one of the best records of the year so far. I spoke with Friedlander about the new CD with Topaz, his solo work, the horrors of waiting backstage, and more.

All About Jazz: Your newest recording is Prowl. This is a CD from your group Topaz, which consists of you, altoist Andy Laster, bassist Stomu Takeishi and drummer Satoshi Takeishi on percussion. This band doesn't play together every day, but it has existed on and off for a good decade now. Let's talk about the musicians. First, there's Andy, who plays alto and, on this new record, clarinet. You and he have a nice empathy and at times you even occupy similar tonal areas—a very casual listen to "Howling Circle could almost give the impression that your cello is overdubbed.

Erik Friedlander: That's so interesting. I get a lot of people saying they can't tell where the cello ends and the alto begins and we're always struck by that. I think it's a tribute to Andy because he's such a great musician and he's so attuned to blending and making that front line work.

AAJ: So what does Andy add to this band?

EF: It's an ideal situation because he's incredibly conscientious about the music, about supporting whatever the frame is that I set up in terms of what the piece demands—but he's not so conscientious that you lose who he is. He's a bandleader and he writes music, so he really can step out and be a powerful soloist. I think I chose this band really well in terms of these issues, because it's a way of describing everybody: they really know how to step out. Because it's important; it's great to have people who can fill a need in terms of what the piece needs, but in this kind of music you need people who have personality and know what it means to be a soloist. So it's always been a dialogue like this with Andy over the years. Also, this is a band without a chordal instrument; a chordal instrument like a guitar or a keyboard can fill up a lot of room in the midrange and make it much easier for a front line, in terms of the work that we have to do. Without that, we have to be even more creative in how we support each other in terms of when one guy's soloing and the other guy's helping shape the direction of the music. It also just means that we have to be that much better in terms of how we perform the music, because it's a little bit more naked.

AAJ: Tell me about Stomu. The new record is called Prowl, and there's a song on it with the same title, but to me the most prowling presence in Topaz is Stomu's electric bass. Tell me about his contribution to the group.

EF: Well, it's hard to know where to start. I don't know if you watch basketball, but they always talk about the coach on the floor, the point guard—the person who carries the coach's mindset onto the floor. He's kind of like that; he sees the big picture. He often has really great suggestions on how to shape a piece or an idea about an ending. Sometimes when I'm at a loss, he'll say, "well, why don't we try this? He always seems to have a great idea. And again, he really brings a lot of personality. I haven't heard anybody play like he does—he can be so abstract and so textural, but at the same time he's so attuned to the subdivisions of the rhythm and the time. You don't get one and lose the other—you get both with him. He comes with this whole package of strange and beautiful textures and sounds. But at the same time, we do a lot of odd-metered pieces, and these need to be not just played accurately—we need to be able to launch, to take off with them. That means the rhythm section has to be able to handle this stuff easily, and they really do. I think that's the amazing thing: his voice can be so strange and odd and mysterious—like you said, prowling—and at the same time, he can turn around and just knock out a groove. That's amazing. Playing live is so much fun, just seeing where things go.

And then Satoshi—he was kind of the magic element, the straw that stirred the drink in this band, because we had spent a good year trying to make it without a percussive instrument. Like his brother, he can handle all sorts of rhythmic complexity—but not to the detriment of the music. He really has an incredible energy and all these hand drum techniques; he's a really spectacular hand percussionist. He spent all this time in Colombia, he speaks fluent Spanish—he's one of these guys where you just keep peeling back layers of the onion. I've known him for ten years and I keep finding out new things about him. He's very humble; he never tells you about all the things that he can do. So you get the idea of what I'm after in terms of being a bandleader. I need to feel that we're all on the same page and that we're pursuing what the goals of a particular piece are. But then at the same time, I want us all to have the ability to explode.

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