Erik Friedlander first honored Oscar Pettiford in 2008 with Broken Arm Trio, a collection of originals inspired by Pettiford’s rediscovery of the cello after his busted wing became an obstacle to performing on the larger bass. Oscalypso goes a step further by exploring nine Pettiford compositions, and it is Friedlander’s first-ever record of cover songs. Where Broken Arm Trio stayed true to its title by eschewing arco on its pizzicato-stitched, folk-oriented fare, Oscalypso enriches classic bebop with lush unison lines and traded phrases between Friedlander’s bowed and plucked cello-akin to the glides and splats of a trumpet-and the horns of saxophonist Michael Blake. Their harmonizing head arrangements stand out, from the spooky intro to “Bohemia After Dark” to the closing track, “Sunrise Sunset.”
Not everything works. Friedlander’s rendition of “Tricotism,” perhaps Pettiford’s most renowned piece, feels a little stiffer in the unison passages than the Lucky Thompson and Ray Brown versions. And while affecting, the ballad “Two Little Pearls” is more doleful and less beautiful than Pettiford’s definitive take. But there are numerous triumphs here. Friedlander transforms the big-band tune “Tamalpais Love Song” into chamber music with a flamenco tint via his imaginative arrangement and nonpareil cello work. Tropical flourishes likewise come to the fore on the appropriately named “Oscalypso,” and in the tango embedded in “Sunrise Sunset.” The toe-tapping buoyancy of vintage bebop is showcased on the blues-infused “Pendulum at Falcon’s Lair,” and in the ’50s flashback that “Cable Car” inspires.
Friedlander’s familiarity with his rhythm section is crucial, to his adroit interplay with bassist Trevor Dunn and to where and when drummer Michael Sarin opts to emphasize pulse or atmosphere. Along with Blake as an invaluable foil, they have enabled him to make a modern, adventurous bebop record fronted by a cellist who takes no prisoners.