Erik Friedlander: Going Uptown

During an interview last fall, cellist Erik Friedlander ran through several pizzicato techniques that figure prominently into his latest album, Broken Arm Trio (SkipStone). Sitting in his apartment in New York’s SoHo neighborhood, Friedlander plucked the cello strings like a bassist, fingerpicked like a guitar player and created a tremolo effect using just one finger. During a casual conversation afterward, Friedlander’s cello rested horizontally on his lap like an oversized guitar.

While pizzicato plays only a minor role in the cello’s centuries-old repertoire, Friedlander believes spotlighting the instrument in this manner makes it accessible and also compelling for jazz listeners. “I really believe it’s an exceptional jazz voice,” he said earlier at a nearby café. “Not [in] the modern jazz that I’ve been part of in the last 15 years, but in the jazz of the past. The minute you pick up the bow,” he added, “I think … the cello becomes [a] different instrument, something that’s taking jazz into some other new, modern territory.”

Friedlander graduated in 1982 from Columbia University, and initially concentrated on classical music and studio work. Peter Sanders, a cellist with the New York City Ballet Orchestra, recalled Friedlander’s strong technique in a telephone interview. “There were things that he was doing that I literally couldn’t do at the time … such as working on various violin études, which were pretty advanced for a cellist,” said Sanders, who performed with Friedlander throughout the 1980s. “I didn’t at that point know any other cellist delving into that kind of a technical approach.”

Friedlander’s jazz career blossomed in the late 1980s. He received exposure performing alongside trumpeter Dave Douglas and composer John Zorn, leaders of New York’s experimental downtown scene. Friedlander later incorporated pizzicato while touring with pianist Myra Melford’s The Same River, Twice band. “[Previously] I brought my classical bias—pizzicato is something you do only rarely,” said Friedlander, 48. “[But] in [Melford’s] band there was no bass … so I was playing pizzicato like crazy, and it was natural for me to continue to do that in the solos. It was a great experience and I remember thinking, Wow, [pizzicato] is really something I know how to do. I got to research this more … and find out what the possibilities are.”

He concluded that the cello benefits from pizzicato. The brightness and intensity produced by the bow blend poorly with instruments such as the saxophone, guitar, piano and bass. “It brings with it a very hot, emotional sound,” he said. “Although it’s the same range as a tenor sax, it has none of that suaveness. With pizzicato it’s a different thing. It has that cool; it has a little more reserve. It’s still got all the warmth, but it also has a little less of that in-your-face intensity and complexity that allows it to be a really great jazz instrument.”

Friedlander documents his pizzicato work on Melford’s The Same River, Twice (1996) and on Block Ice & Propane (2007), a collection of solo performances that draws inspiration from the road trips that Friedlander’s family took each summer while accompanying his father, acclaimed photographer Lee Friedlander, to his assignments. Broken Arm Trio celebrates Oscar Pettiford, the great bop-era bassist. Pettiford began doubling on cello in 1949 after breaking his arm. Pettiford tuned the cello in fourths like a bass and never incorporated the bow; even so he became one of the first jazz musicians to showcase the instrument onstage and also on the album My Little Cello. “Even though he wasn’t really a cello player [in the classical sense],” Friedlander said, “he did a lot more than many [cellists] did by first of all writing new music … and then creating an interesting group with French horn and saxophone. I feel like he’s really a forefather of being creative with the cello.”

Pettiford suffered from chronic back pain and had an uneven disposition, but Friedlander characterizes his music as sunny and optimistic. Broken Arm Trio conveys this sensibility. The tracks are short, and the chemistry of drummer Mike Sarin and bassist Trevor Dunn heightens the interest. “Hop Skip” has a bluesy flavor, and “Big Shoes” swings. “Spinning Plates,” “Knife Points” and “Cake” feature lively syncopated patterns, while Friedlander’s pizzicato work on the more subdued “Pearls” and “Buffalo” suggests a classical guitar.

Dave Douglas attributes Friedlander’s originality to his careful study of the cello’s history, and his willingness to tackle a broad spectrum of music. “I think what you’re hearing in Erik has developed out of a lot of different gigs that he’s done with a lot of different people: pop music and avant-garde and jazz and world music,” Douglas said by phone. “So I think the reason that it’s sounding so rich is that he’s gone so many places with it.”

Friedlander said the cello’s place in jazz is still a work in progress. He enjoys the challenge. “You cannot just pretend it’s a jazz instrument. It’s not,” he said. “[But] we’re not tethered to any tradition besides classical. So [cellists] can be in any kind of music and make a statement.”

Originally published in March 2009

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