In my 20s, I was trying to become a classical orchestra cellist,” says Erik Friedlander. “By the time I hit 30, I realized that this was a mistake.”
Meanwhile, he remained haunted by an earlier encounter with jazz. “I had played this gig with [bassist] Harvie Swartz,” he recalls. “I was just out of high school and it was the first improvising thing I had ever experienced, and it totally blew my mind. But I couldn’t get work as a jazz cellist. I wasn’t playing over changes so well at the time so the hardcore jazz guys weren’t really interested in me. And I wasn’t hip to thewhole downtown scene,which was really expressive and passionate. I had to make a living so I chose to continue in this classical route to get work.”
He gradually got back in touch with improvisation through working with Marty Ehrlich’s Dark Woods and Dave Douglas’ String Band. Friedlander has since become a ubiquitous figure on that downtown improvising scene, performing with Myra Melford, Mark Dresser, and John Zorn. He recorded two atmospheric and provocative albums as a leader with his band Chimera for Zorn’s Tzadik label and now pursues a more groove-oriented path with Topaz , his debut for Siam Records. Drawing on such varied inspiration as Earth, Wind & Fire (“Verdine,” “Shining”) and Eric Dolphy (“Hat and Beard,” “Something Sweet, Something Tender”), Friedlander and bandmates—alto saxophonist Andy Laster, electric bassist Stomu Takeishi, and his brother Satoshi on percussion—arrive at a striking blend of structure and improv that is at once abstract and accessible.
“I wanted to have fun with this group,” says Erik, “and I really had to fight myself to keep it simple. In fact, when I started writing for this band I made a rule: the music would have to fit on one page, because I had been doing these three and four page charts with Part A and Part B. But with Topaz I wanted to make it more concise, less complicated structures. I just wanted to get out front and blow, to really show what the cello can do.”