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Erik Friedlander: Complexity, Simplicity and Arc

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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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