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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.

AAJ: Well, you couldn't have found players who are more capable of technical rigor, but at the same time so imbued with personality.

EF: Right. Especially these days, with this band—I don't write music that is just about that technical, sort of classical situation. It needs to have that ability to turn a corner at any moment.

AAJ: Prowl is the first Topaz record since the 2003 CD Quake. The two records have a lot in common. Both do a great deal with relatively concise structures, and band's approach on each is very Topaz-ish. But this new one feels like the most distilled and effortlessly unified effort from this band—like the group has nothing to prove and is all the more effective for it. No one is forcing anything, so the music can just exist. Also, Andy plays clarinet and there's more of your own material than ever before. What do you think? Is this record different from the previous one?

EF: Yeah, I think so. I think part of what you're hearing is just tour after tour. I mean, we don't tour every month, but every year we pretty much put in weeks here, weeks there. A lot of it, too, is my own coming to a place where I'm not afraid to be simpler. I still want to have a frame, something that directs the piece; I don't want it to be completely free. But I'm more at ease with less. I know how to make it work. I'm more familiar with the strengths of the band and how to really make the best use of everybody's abilities. I think the first two records I did [Topaz (Siam, 1997) and Skin (Siam, 1999)], I was still working from the top down—I would kind of write stuff that I heard Andy and myself playing. Then, with Quake, well, generally—specifics can disprove or prove it—I was working from more of a bass perspective. And for this new one, I found my inspiration from the percussive side. Not for all of them, but for a lot of the pieces, I went to the percussion, just as an experiment—to see what it would trigger. So I think that combined with just my feeling more comfortable and confident about the group—or just being more experienced, and having a greater understanding of what's possible—to change the music. And also, we're just getting better [laughing].

AAJ: You did the record on tour, which is a very good way to capture a band that's playing well.

EF: It can be. You say that, but the first version of this record was actually done in Italy in the middle of a tour. We were doing a two-and-a-half week tour and there were three days free in the middle. I thought, "oh, great; I'm going to write a book of music, we're going to bring it on tour, and then we're going to record it. So we did a gig, and then from that first gig on, we would start learning the new tunes the day of the concert. Halfway through, we had these days off, and I found a studio in Tuscany which wasn't expensive. So we had this fantastic three-day period where we recorded, but the sonic quality of the recording wasn't really up to it—and although I really liked the performances, there is something to having a little more time with the tunes. Some of them were pretty difficult. So that first on-tour recording didn't make it to release. So then I added a few more pieces and then on this tour, we made it happen.

AAJ: I've read the liner notes to Prowl, and they give some information about the rhythms—often African ones—that were incorporated into the compositions. That makes sense, since you've told me that you were approaching the music to some extent from a percussive angle. That's fine, and it's really interesting, but what about the melodic or harmonic content? Is there such a thing as a Topaz melody? Are there certain melodic ideas that lend themselves to this group?

EF: It's really tough to say. I guess I don't really restrict myself too much with that. I just go where I go instinctually with that—just keeping in mind that I have to outline a harmony with very few voices. So it can't be as rich as I might like to go; it's going to be pretty lean when we play it. That's the only limitation. I guess I was thinking very vocally with this record, too, at least on "Howling Circle and things like that—this vocal kind of chanting. Actually, a lot of the pieces: "Rain Bearers has a really vocal kind of sax cry in the beginning, "Anhinga is very singable. I can look at this now and see how I'm heading towards this greater simplicity. I've got a solo record coming out soon that's more of a very beautiful kind of spare, Americana thing. Very pizzicato ["pizzicato means plucking, instead of bowing, a stringed instrument]. And now I can see this as the beginning of that—moving towards expression in a scaled-down way, but still trying to make it sizzle.

AAJ: Well, I don't think there's anything even remotely condescending—in terms of simplicity—about Prowl, but I will say that in the best way, it's very melodically memorable.

EF: Well, thanks. That makes me feel that I got close to what I was after, which was more about the emotional arc of the melody and just the feeling of—well, that feeling of when you hear a great singer sing. There's nothing that communicates like that, and I was trying to get after that.
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