With its African-inspired cover art and concentration on indigenous polyrhythms, Prowl presents cellist Erik Friedlander's Topaz quartet taking a virtual trip to the dark continent for a set of rhythmic excursions that are as adventurous as they are accessible. While the ensemble's Middle Eastern modality is still firmly in place, the group has opened itself up to a number of different traditional African rhythms on this captivating set.
Topaz, which celebrates its tenth anniversary with this fourth album, has long been Friedlander's primary vehicle for exploring global rhythms in a jazz context, and Prowl delivers evidence of that concept in spades. He demonstrates at the onset that he has plenty of fire left for this particular project. "Howling Circle" opens the record with some of the most nascent and visceral arco soloing the cellist has ever laid to wax.
Friedlander demonstrates truly democratic leadership by allowing the other members of his band equal time in the spotlight. The syncopated funk of the title track, the propulsive rhythm of "Najime," and the varied dynamics of "Rain Bearers" showcase alto saxophonist Andy Laster and the leader trading energetic solos over the Takeishi brothers' interlocking polyrhythms. They are given free reign in many of these open-ended pieces.
There are exceptions to Topaz's focus on rhythm. Laster switches to clarinet for the folksy, chamber music-like stateliness of "Anhinga" and "7th Sister." The latter piece features a sensitive opening pizzicato solo from Friedlander before the rest of the group slowly materializes. "Chanting" has a gorgeous ascending melody that is prayerful in its intensity, gradually modulating with tiny variations as the piece grows monumental in stature. With an accessible, yearning melody, this is one of Friedlander's most memorable tunes.
The drama continues on "A Dangerous Game," with the quartet building towers of ecstatic emotion over a rubato rhythm. Escalating from a somber dirge into a mountain of soulful expressionism before reining in, the musicians demonstrate a knack for sublime call and response dynamics that come from their many years of touring together. Likewise, the traditional New Orleans funeral march "A Closer Walk With Thee" is given suitably topical, epic treatment with its deliberately paced, unfolding blues-soaked crescendo.
Ten years old at this point, Topaz could easily continue making music for another decade. There are plenty of other continents and rhythms left for Friedlander and company to explore.
Howling Circle; Anhinga; Prowl; Chanting; 7th Sister; Rain Bearers; A Dangerous Game; A close Walk With Thee; Najime.
Erik Friedlander: cello; Andy Laster: alto saxophone, clarinet; Stomu Takeishi: electric bass; Satoshi Takeishi: percussion.