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Erik Friedlander: Reversing Abstraction

Ludovico Granvassu By

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In general, I am not after perfection. I'm looking for those moments of synchronicity -- a counterpoint, harmony or dissonance, whatever they may be -- where the band is thinking and responding like a multi-part animal.
Music works in mysterious ways. Take the latest project by Erik Friedlander. Some time ago, the New York cellist went to an exhibition of six absinthe glasses by Pablo Picasso at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Despite the somewhat abstract and deconstructed nature of these sculptures, he got inspired to write some of the most tactile, swinging, even groovy, music he has ever composed. Perhaps Throw a Glass, the name he chose for this project, represents just that: reversing abstraction. Be as it may, this is the jazziest outing to date for Friedlander, but it is jazz with the same dangerous twist that can be found in Picasso's glasses —after all his quartet features some of the most adventurous New York musicians, Uri Caine on piano, Mark Helias on bass and Ches Smith on drums.

We reached out to Erik Friedlander to talk about his new project and its visually stunning release Artemisia [Skipstone Records].

To listen to music from Artemisia, as well as to excerpts of this interview, play the archived podcast of Mondo Jazz [starting at 1:07:29].

All About Jazz: Your latest project was inspired by Picasso's absinthe glass sculptures which you saw at the Museum of Modern Art, in New York. It is a series of six sculptures which depicts a drinking glass with the front cut away to reveal the liquid inside, and perched on the rim is a sugar cube atop an absinthe spoon. Each is painted differently on an identical bronze form. What did you see in those sculptures that triggered your own creative process?

Erik Friedlander: I just found those sculptures to be both charming and kind of dangerous at the same time. Just like Picasso's own relationship with absinthe was a complicated one. As you said, these big glasses were torn away around the front, revealing the inside. That made me wonder what was Picasso trying to say about absinthe. They were kind of beautiful but they also struck me as involving some kind of danger. There were six of them all from different collections and it was a miracle that they were all together. This MOMA exhibit got me thinking. There is so much rich material about absinthe and its history as a brain bending hallucinogenic. It was interesting how it developed this bad reputation when on closer examination it is just booze... The wine and beer producers felt quite threatened by its increasing popularity. It was getting so popular because people talked about the miracles and inspiration it brought, a lot of great artists used it... So wine and beer producers helped spread rumors of the poisonous effects that absinthe had and how it was ruining people's lives. Probably not any more than regular alcohol. All of that gave me some ideas.

AAJ: What compositional techniques did you use to translate the inspiration from Picasso's absinthe glass sculptures at MoMA into music?

EF: As a starting point I looked at the two school of thoughts concerning absinthe. According to one, when you drink it you become meditational and thoughtful; according to the other you drink it to chase a high. And so I kind of worked from those two poles working on pieces that were like meditations on obsession and others that optimistically chase euphoria and the "green fairy." At the end that was just a starting point and then I let the material dictate where it wants to go.

For instance this is what happened with "The Great Revelation." I started with this bass line that came to me after listening to a Kendrick Lamar song. I took that inspiration and molded it with the absinthe concept that I had going. That bass line was odd and a little difficult to play but it was kind of cool. It was in five. And I alternated it with a four-four figure, I developed this piano and voicing that I really love that had kind of a jazz feel, but also a stark feel to it. As I mentioned earlier, I let the material dictate the direction. I just start writing and I follow through instinctually. I use my ears and playing the cello and keyboards. I am not picky about where I find my answers as long as I find them.

AAJ: Did this process of letting the music dictate where to continued in the recording studio?

EZ: A good example is our recording of the tune "Sparkotropic." It's one of my favorite pieces on the record. Something happened in the recording session, which was kind of cool. It's kind of subtle, but you can hear it. I had an organized plan and it was supposed to go from a cello solo to piano solo, which it does, but it was supposed to do it in a certain way, starting with a loose time and building it up into a groove. It didn't happen that way. We got to the end of the cello solo, I was in the booth looking around trying to get a cue and we just found our way to doing a completely different thing to start the piano solo, which took over where I left off. I remember looking at Ches and he was shaking his head like "this is great!" The result was better than we had planned. It was kind of magic and I think that leads to a feeling.

In general, I am not after perfection. What I'm after are those moments of synchronicity, of a counterpoint, harmony or dissonance, whatever they may be, where the band is thinking and responding like one, like a multi-part animal.

AAJ: You stated "I don't think I've ever felt so strongly about one of my projects." What was that makes you feel so strongly about it?

EF: I often feel that way about my latest project. The new one is always my favorite, everyone's going to love it and a Grammy may come my way. In this case, however, I also deeply immersed myself in the material, which is not usual since I'm generally an impatient guy and move quickly through my projects. In this case, I took more time to really absorb the material, to tweak the edges of these pieces and the details. On top of that, the chemistry of this group is really great and I feel really strongly about the results. I think it is a project that is both a concept piece about absynth and a project that shows a certain facility with a "jazz lineup" with the cello replacing the saxophone or trumpet.

The cello kind of changes everything. It gives you a little more room to be free with your inspirations. Nevertheless, I think that this is a project that has some jazz proper in it. This is the first record I've done with a rhythm section. In pro sports they say that an athlete "has a motor," like he comes back, keeps working and has got this motor. That's how I feel about Uri Caine's work. His time is so incredible. He subdivides... He so into playing in time and he has also has a wide palette in terms of harmonic structures. So he knows how to take risks. He is just a great, great player to have for a project in which we were going after that "jazz thing" while also pushing the envelope a little bit...

AAJ: Did you think of this line up before or after coming up with the absinthe concept for the project?

EF: The lineup idea predated the project. I just knew I wanted to do something with these musicians. And then I had a concert at The Stone, a couple years ago, where I tried out some of this music in its more primitive form. I felt the chemistry was so great that I really wanted to take it into the studio. The line-up was the first thing that I had in mind. When I got the players together, I wrote the music with them in mind, and then I started fine tuning the story, the record background.

AAJ: You've produced this project through crowd-funding in order to approach it as an art-object, which is consistent with the fact that it was inspired by art-objects. How was this production experience and can you describe the packaging and look?

EF: The box set is contained in a black, shiny, glossy box reminiscent of those Japanese lacquer boxes with the jet black glossy finish and beautiful artwork by a Akino Kondoh. She's drawn some beautiful green fairies, the personification of absinthe. Inside the box are three green vinyl 10" LPs, each one in their own jackets. There are four different drawings that Akino did and a 16 page booklet that our designer Rob Jones did for us. It's really cool. It's kind of a surrealist collage of inspiration notes, notes on the pieces, pieces of scoring from my notes, my original score notes that I'd penciled on the score paper, photographs... I had decided to do something special with this. As you said, the artistic inspiration lends itself towards doing something special.

I'm just so disappointed with CD sales. They seem to have dried out. People are not interested in them anymore. So instead of printing three or four thousand cds and having them sit around, I felt like doing something different. So we've made 250 beautiful box sets. I love the 10" format. It's a great size and I thought it was more special. I wanted to do a number of disks and, since there are two bonus tracks, they would not fit onto two 12" disks.

AAJ: The box set contains three 10" albums. How did it influence the narrative of your tune sequences? Considering that one has to get up and flip the record, then change records... are those natural pauses built in?

EF: The main consideration was the audiophile quality of the disks. You can't have more than, I think, 12 or 14 minutes on each side of a 10" disk. So I had to use a lesser quality organizational tool, the length of the pieces. It was like a Rubik's cube. You weigh the sequencing against the timing and you see what the best solution is. As far as the necessary pauses are concerned, if you're an LP lover and listener, you're used to them. They're all part of the process, and you enjoy that process if you're an LP lover.

AAJ: Absinthe has inspired many artists before from Oscar Wilde to Ernst Hemingway to Vincent Van Gogh. Have you found any parallels with their work?

EF: I checked out Rimbaud and Verlaine, but I was not thinking about my project when I did. There's a quote from Hemingway where he talks about absinthe and he describes it as "opaque, bitter, tongue-numbing, brain-warming, stomach-warming, idea-changing liquid alchemy. So evidently Hemingway was part of that experimentation, and so was Paul Gauguin, Edvard Munch and August Strindberg. They all consumed absinthe. Paul Verlaine denounced absinthe on his deathbed calling the governments to ban the substance. But he was just, he was just a drinker, you know, so it just drank too much absinthe. I've tried myself a couple of times and I have to say I'm not a big fan although I haven't had "tulips brushing my legs" as Oscar Wilde described the feeling he experienced after drinking absinthe. I would have loved to have that. Oscar Wilde had another great quote about it: "After the first glass of absinthe you see things as you wish they were. After the second you see them as they are not. Finally you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world."

Photo credit: Danilo Codazzi
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