Erik Friedlander: 50 Miniatures for Improvising Quintet

Jewish philosophy, religious belief and mathematics buttress this startling CD, a collection spanning tune, snippet, melody and outburst. Inspired by the 14th letter of the Hebrew alphabet, it consists of seven groups of seven pieces, capped by a standalone. It is best listened to as a whole, as it resists casual sampling, and its shape isn’t made clear until its restful conclusion.

Rigorously composed, with room for explosive improvisation, cellist Erik Friedlander’s work was commissioned by the Contemporary Jewish Museum, where it was performed in 2008 as part of a special project curated by sometime Friedlander collaborator John Zorn. Remixed and reconfigured, it now surfaces on this spiky, rigorously modern disc.

The pieces unite Friedlander with violinist Jennifer Choi, pianist Sylvie Courvoisier, bassist Trevor Dunn and drummer Mike Sarin. They are largely abstract and amelodic, though they flow into one another. The musicianship is extraordinary, its fullness informing each section no matter how brief or abstract. I consider this contemporary classical music more than jazz: While certain sections skirt chaos and are resolutely dissonant, others are outright placid. (Such a segue can be heard in “Liquid/Headlong,” the launch of Part 5.)

Only repeated listening will separate sections by name, and the effort isn’t necessary for appreciation. On his website, Friedlander says he wrote “50 Miniatures” when his wife, Lynn, was suffering from leg pain that turned out to be breast cancer recurrence; creating this at the rate of at least one section a day was his way of dealing with that. Friedlander’s catharsis yielded this complex yet innately human music.