Erik Friedlander: Complexity, Simplicity and Arc


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AAJ: Let's talk about your Grains of Paradise record. This is a CD released in 2001 on Tzadik Records' Radical Jewish Culture series. It's got Satoshi, bassist Trevor Dunn, guitarist Bryce Dessner on some of it, and three violinists—Joyce Hammann, Karen Milne and Peter Rovit. You mixed this one yourself. This is gorgeous, melodic stuff with lush but noncloying strings on some of the pieces, and another great rhythm section. The strings here remind me of some Mideastern pop records, and you're the primary soloist on these pieces. What was the concept behind this project?

EF: Well, you nailed it: it was Mideastern pop. That, and Bollywood, and I was listening to [Lebanese pop star] Nawal Al-Zoghbi. I had sort of an intense year of listening to this stuff. I've forgotten some of the names, but I was listening to Lebanese pop, Israeli pop. And also some of the Bollywood things with the big strings, which are unison, and the way they punctuated the lead vocal, which was mostly a female singer. The singer would sing and this whole mass of strings would come in and comment, comment, and it was very rhythmic and very undocile—not about laying down lush harmonies, although I'm all for that. It was much more aggressive and participatory, and I really wanted to do something like that. So that's what this record is about. It's 70% that, and then there's this mystical, pretty, Jewish side. And it all kind of melds in that zone.

AAJ: I like Trevor Dunn on acoustic bass, which he plays throughout this CD. I always think of him as an electric player because of bands like Fantomas and Mr. Bungle.

EF: He mostly is, but, you know, he moved to New York and he played in [John Zorn's acoustic] Masada a few times—I remember seeing him subbing for Greg [Cohen]. Actually, Greg subbed for him on a gig we did in Poland. Unfortunately, with this record, which demands ten violins, I don't get to perform it much. But I did get a chance with the Krakow Symphony, and then I brought [guitarist] Brad Shepik and [violinist] Karla Kihlsted and Greg Cohen—so I could share the soloing duties. The first time I did it, it was kind of every tune, cello solo. It was just getting too much.

AAJ: So you say "ten violins. Does that mean the three violinists did overdubbed parts on the actual record to make one massive, unison violin thing?

EF: Yeah. Exactly. Each tune is different, but there are ten individual parts for each piece.

AAJ: Is your band Chimera [of Friedlander, clarinetist Chris Speed, bassist Drew Gress and bass clarinetist Andrew D'Angelo] still working or existing in any way?

EF: No. It's defunct. I loved what I did with that group, but I kept reading reviews about "chambery —you know, this idea of classical-meets-jazz. I'd hit a point where that was the last thing I wanted to do. That was the genesis of getting Topaz going: I wanted to play with a rhythm section. It's just too easy to do that chamber thing, so that was kind of the end of Chimera and the beginning of Topaz.

AAJ: Well, it may be too easy, but it's also too easy for music writers to refer to anything that has a cello as "chambery. I suppose reading that word started to make you cringe.

EF: Oh, totally. It's totally exactly the opposite of what I want to do. You know, I was classically trained, but I'm trying to find out what other kinds of music this instrument can play. Especially in these days of crossover artists doing everything italicized or in quotation marks: "jazz, "world —where they're just reading parts, they're not really improvisers. It's not so interesting to me.

AAJ: Tell me about your new band Broken Arm with bassist Kermit Driscoll and drummer Mike Sarin. I think [vibes player] Bryan Carrott's also in the group?

EF: Sometimes.

AAJ: I believe this is a further exploration of playing pizzicato.

EF: Yeah. Although now I'm starting to add bowed to the soloing part of it. But this is a really overtly jazz project, and it's something I've been waiting to do. I've been collecting cello-and-jazz discographies and transcriptions of pieces for years—because I really wanted to do this, I know it's in me, and I did study this music, after all. I worked for years and years to be able to negotiate jazz music and changes and time. I have these skills, but I couldn't find a way to make it feel organic. Then I finally decided—I just want to write a book of music that's from this kind of sunny, Oscar Pettiford pizzicato cello as my launching point [bassist Pettiford dealt with a broken arm by switching to pizzicato, retuned cello, essentially introducing the instrument to the jazz world]—don't do any of his music, but use that as my kind of model.

And also use the small-group Herbie Nichols stuff—I listened to a lot of that. So I figured out how to write medium-tempo tunes and gradually—very gradually—I have written about twenty-five tunes. So if you ever see this concert, you'll see me looking back, but I also look forward. This group is ready to record, and I'm just looking for the right situation for it, because I really feel like I need to get it out there. I do want to establish my cred as someone who can do this, and I think it's a really optimistic kind of joyous project that I really love playing in. We did a very successful tour in Italy and Portugal last November. It's small-group jazz filtered through my own perspective. It's really been a blast.

AAJ: I'm always impressed by your cello technique. It's daunting. But I always get the impression that you make sure your technique is serving your pieces, not vice-versa. I don't think you waste time showing off your chops. Is this just a question of taste or do you ever have to think about not overplaying—do you ever have to reorient yourself more to a piece's content?

Erik FriedlanderEF: Well, I guess I compare myself to some of the violinists that I know or play with—Zbigniew [Seifert] or Mark Feldman or someone like that. I wish I could make the technique more central, but I don't actually feel like I have it to do it, not at least compared with them. I guess I also feel really strongly about the emotional impact of playing. That's what I'm really about and what I love to do. So I think I try to lead with that, and that leads to things that are less technically virtuosic and more expressive. I was thinking about this today. Because I go to Italy a lot to tour, I'm trying to learn Italian, and I came across this word "improvvisamente —so you think, oh, that means "improvised. But it means "suddenly. And I thought of that word "suddenly, and I thought that's what improvisation should be like: it should be sudden. And I'm going for those moments. If I think back about a gig, I hate deconstructing: "oh, then we did this and you should have done that. I just think about moments. Did we have moments? Did we have enough moments of things happening? If we did, I count that as a good night. That's pretty much the priority..
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