Some use visual art; others look to poetry. But the muse for Erik Friedlander’s latest album, Artemisia, is absinthe, the famously hallucination-inducing alcoholic drink that was only re-legalized in the U.S. in 2007, after a nearly 100-year ban. The New York cellist, whose career is filled with solo albums and John Zorn sideman shifts, hadn’t had a drop of the stuff prior to this project. But the music, willed into being by Friedlander with pianist Uri Caine, bassist Mark Helias, and drummer Ches Smith, should sound familiar to anyone who’s ever partaken of controlled (more or less) substances. Focused and intense, with titles like “The Devil Made Liquid” and “Drop by Drop,” it perfectly captures the “moment of clarity” one often has while under the influence.
The inspiration for Artemisia was first uncorked at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, at a Picasso exhibit. The artist’s absinthe glasses took hold of Friedlander’s imagination, though he didn’t realize it until he’d already commenced composing for the LP.
“I didn’t really make the association with the music until I started getting into these hypnotic piano passages,” he explains over absinthe (appropriately) at the East Village haunt William Barnacle Tavern. The cellist and I tried two kinds, Mephisto and Mata Hari. I experienced no hallucinations, but the beverage—commonly referred to for centuries as “the green fairy”—is not for the faint of heart; all it takes is a few sips to feel buzzed.
Not just an ode to absinthe, Artemisia is also an attempt by Friedlander to move in a more standard jazz direction. And there’s nothing loose about the effort: The foursome can swing, and they have an instrumentation closer to Trane’s “classic quartet” than the experiments of Friedlander’s downtown homebase.
“I felt I wanted to go traditional,” he says. “It’s maybe the second time I’ve used piano in my 20-plus records. I’ve never used a standard rhythm section with cello, and I felt like I was ready for that. To make a statement. I mean, it’s about absinthe, and its history as a hallucinogenic, but it’s also, in some ways, a statement about the traditional jazz quartet. But with cello instead of trumpet or sax.”
As for how the music syncs up with the drink, Friedlander sees both as entwined with ideas like “pursuing the high” and “chasing euphoria.” For him, those moments of ecstasy come when his band, dubbed Throw a Glass, is at its most spontaneous.
“I want the pieces to be played correctly, obviously,” he admits. “But I’m more interested in finding those little daily miracles that happen within the performance, where players have a sudden synchronicity, or a sudden counterpoint, or an agreed-upon ending. Those moments that you get in any performance. If you have half a dozen of those moments, it’s magic. So I’m looking for that golden moment when the rainbow appears. When the players have this thinking-together, as one.”
Caine, who has brought Friedlander onboard for his own albums Wagner e Venezia and The Classical Variations, understands the cellist’s outlook exactly. He also sees the band’s other members as contributing to the leader’s riding-the-wave-where-it-takes-you vision.
“He’s a friendly, relaxed person, but he knows what he wants,” Caine says of Friedlander. “He’s also somebody that lets it go where it goes, sometimes. The type of group it is, it’s very open to going different places. The music is challenging to play—there’s a lot of variety in Erik’s approach to writing, a lot of angles—and for us it’s fun.”
When asked about the allure of writing a concept album, Friedlander explains that it can be a platform for examining one’s own creativity—a way of looking both inward and outward, with a potential collision of those views always just around the corner.“It forces me to delve into what my process is,” he says. “What it’s about and where it came from. It’s a give-and-take process. You write, you explore, you write, you explore, and the two start to influence each other. Pretty soon you have something.”