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The University of Hartford

Erik Friedlander, Topaz
SIAM Records
By Chuck Obuchowski

    On the brink of a new century, jazz is struggling with an identity crisis. Having overcome tremendous cultural and social prejudices, it must still deal with the very real concerns of art vs. commerce, of enlightenment vs. entertainment. On the one hand, we may study jazz at the finest universities in the world, or take in a concert honoring past masters at esteemed venues such as Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center. On the other, the music industry expects us to want "smooth jazz" (what a horrid misnomer!) and hep-cat swing, as performed by Louis Jordan wannabes.
    Thankfully, there are musicians whose pursuit of the Muse transcends slavish allegiance to the marketplace or to the conservatism of most educational institutions. Cellist Erik Friedlander is one such artist, and his Topaz offers a blueprint for avoiding the current jazz conundrum. By accepting the fact that jazz is itself an amalgam of various musical styles, and that the best jazz has always drawn upon contemporary pop and classical influences, Friedlander has fashioned a work of striking originality that employs a unique combination of instruments and influences.
    Friedlander’s experiences in classical, rock and varied improvising contexts make him well suited to such exploration. For an idea of his range, here’s a sampling of the musicians he’s worked with: Phil Woods, Courtney Love, Dave Douglas and Dar Williams. On his current project, the cellist has selected colleagues whose musical backgrounds are as diversified as his: saxophonist Andy Laster, electric bassist Stomu Takeishi and percussionist Satoshi Takeishi. All are bold improvisers, but each is also able to make the leader’s compositions come alive; witness the eloquence of the title tune, a mournful ballad with only the slightest touches of solo embellishment. Additionally, "Topaz" displays this quartet’s attention to detail, revealing subtle coloration’s which enhance the overall listening experience.
    The clever arrangements of Eric Dolphy and Miles Davis pieces, coupled with the impressive structure and logic of his own music, indicate that Friedlander’s classical training has served him well. However, his strengths as an improviser should not be overlooked. Whether bowing fast and furious, as on his "Shining" solo, or plucking dark-hued blues notes on Dolphy’s "Something Sweet, Something Tender", the cellist exhibits virtuosity which ranks him in the upper echelons of jazz-based string players. Laster’s alto is a perfect foil for the leader’s instrument—often heard in sweet-toned unison with Friedlander during melodies, the saxman elsewhere provides plenty of muscle for the others to play off of.
    Topaz, the band, grew out of music Friedlander wrote several years ago to accompany a dance concert choreographed by his wife, Lynn Shapiro. Several of those pieces found their way onto this recording, including the title selection and a euphoric flamenco romp, "November." The original configuration was a trio, minus percussion. Utilizing electric bass for the first time in his career, the composer found himself going back to old recordings by the Headhunters and Earth Wind & Fire for inspiration. Hence, the funkiness of tunes like "Verdine," which leads off the CD in style, announcing immediately that rhythm plays a big role in Topaz. The Takeishi brothers deserve credit for this emphasis, with Stomu channeling Jaco Pastorius’ spirit through his fretless bass and Satoshi painting percussion portraits with instruments from all corners of the globe.
    At press time, Topaz had just embarked on a US tour, with Northeast dates in early May to be announced. It’s unlikely they’ll play Connecticut, but check out the WWUH jazzline just in case, at (860) 768-5267--or visit www.erikfriedlander.com.

Copyright©WWUH: May/June Program Guide, 1999

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