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Jazz Review

Friedlander Illuminates the Cello as a Star of Improvisational Jazz

April 03, 1999|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Listening to cellist Erik Friedlander opening new jazz territories for his instrument on Thursday night at Rocco Ristorante in Bel-Air raised an interesting question. How many hands would it take to count the number of improvising cellists in the history of jazz?

And the answer is "Not many." Friedlander is adventuring in a relatively unexplored land. A few string bass players--Oscar Pettiford, Ron Carter and Ray Brown among them--occasionally doubled on the smaller instrument. Fred Katz (celebrating his 80th birthday with a performance Sunday at the Jazz Bakery) was prominent with the Chico Hamilton Quintet in the '50s, and David Baker and David Darling have done some interesting work. Before Friedlander, the avant-gardist Abdul Wadud played an important role in the development of the cello's jazz potential.

Friedlander's performance at Rocco, however, and his playing on his recently released "Topaz" (Siam Records) clearly position him as the first potential star performer on his instrument. Working with the same musicians who appear on the album--alto saxophonist Andy Laster and the brother team of bassist Stomu Takeishi and percussionist Satoshi Takeishi--Friedlander gave a rich, multilayered performance.

His improvising, filled with imaginative uses of the unique resources of the cello, were driven by a strong sense of swing and enhanced by the precision of his pitch. Although he is an evolving player, his soloing had all the earmarks of original musical intelligence. Equally important, Friedlander's arrangements and compositions (his own works, as well as pieces by Wadud and Eric Dolphy) were beautifully conceived, making subtle but effective use of the timbral similarities between cello and alto saxophone.

And, as a final asset, Friedlander's music refused to be defined or limited by traditional parameters. Instead, it moved freely through mainstream improvising, jazz and classical avant-garde and rhapsodic lyricism, with a sprinkling of world music elements thrown in for seasoning. Added together, the result was an intriguing view of one of the many new directions opening up for 21st century jazz.

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