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On the Cello Side

Cellist Erik Friedlander Pushes His Instrument's Warmth to Jazz Extremes

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 2/18/2004

"Often people will tell me that the cello is their favorite instrument," Erik Friedlander says. "And that can be a curse."

Friedlander--who has recorded repeatedly with such leaders as John Zorn, Dave Douglas, Fred Hersch, and Marty Ehrlich--is the leading jazz cellist of his generation. The 43-year-old New Yorker is certainly not the first to improvise on the four-stringed, tenor-voiced chamber instrument, but he still has to convince bandleaders that it belongs. After all, there's no category for cello in the Downbeat jazz polls; it has to compete in the miscellaneous category against banjo, tuba, harmonica, and conch shell. So why is Friedlander so wary of people who love the cello?

"Because they're thinking of just one thing--long, lyrical, warm tones," he says. "I don't want to be limited by that. I want to prove that the cello can be very aggressive, that it can play very rhythmically. On the other hand, I don't want to abandon what the cello does so well--I love those long, lyrical warm tones, too.

"So my recording output is both an effort to defy the limitations put on the cello, but also to build on what the instrument is good at. My latest quartet album, [2003's] Quake, is a good example of this constant tug of war. Some of it is very lyrical, some of it comes from world music or a modal jazz tradition, some of it is very free. What I like to do is throw this instrument into different situations and see what happens."

When Friedlander comes to the Peabody Conservatory's Griswold Hall Feb. 19, he'll begin the program with a 45-minute set of unaccompanied cello music, most of it from his new solo album, 2003's Maldoror, a series of 10 spontaneous improvisations on the surrealist poetry of Isidore Ducasse. But Friedlander will also offer solo-cello arrangements of Persian music and compositions from Eric Dolphy and Carlos Santana. After a set by the Mark Feldman Quartet--the New York violinist with three Peabody faculty members, bassist Michael Formanek, drummer Howard Curtis, and pianist Tim Murphy--all five musicians plan to join forces for a finale.

"Most of the students here at Peabody are classical string players, and I want to find a way to have them interact more with the jazz department," says Formanek, the evening's organizer. "I want to let them know that there's this huge range of how their instruments are being used in jazz--from a very traditional way over standard chord changes to improvising in a very free way to playing in a format related to chamber music."

Indeed, the cello has a longer history in jazz than most people would suspect. The pioneer was Oscar Pettiford, who followed the implications of his melodic bass lines to play the higher-pitched cello, too. He doubled on cello in the Duke Ellington Orchestra and then on his own mid-'50s albums as a leader, most notably on 1953's The New Oscar Pettiford Sextet.

From 1955 through 1961, drummer Chico Hamilton took the chamber-jazz concept of the Modern Jazz Quartet one step further by organizing an unusual quintet of reeds, guitar, bass, drums, and cello, the latter played by either Fred Katz or Nate Gersham. Eric Dolphy, an alumnus of Hamilton's quintet, had Ron Carter playing cello on the classic 1960 session Out There.

Like Pettiford and Carter, bassists such as Dave Holland, Ray Brown, and Percy Heath sometimes doubled on cello. But a new generation of cellists emerged who insisted on making the instrument a full-time pursuit and who broke with the chamber-jazz tradition of the instrument to explore the post-bop and free-jazz breakthroughs of the '60s. These younger cellists included ECM's David Darling, Albert Ayler sideman Joel Friedman, Charles Mingus sideman Charles McCracken, Paul Bley sideman David Eyges and, above all, Abdul Wadud, who played with Julius Hemphill, Arthur Blythe, and Anthony Davis.

"Abdul Wadud is one of my most powerful influences," Friedlander admits. "He was so strong in his concept and he was so insistent that he wasn't going to play bass as well. He had this soulful, Stax-like sound combined with a desire to be modern and an approach that integrated playing and composing. He left the scene in the early '90s and stopped playing--it's a great loss.

"Hank Roberts was another great influence," Friedlander continues. "The work he did with the Arcado Trio was great. And Mark [Feldman], though he plays violin, was inspiring. If you want to improvise on strings, it's easy to fall into a bluegrass or a swing-fiddle tradition. But Mark resisted that by seeking out collaborations with modern improvisers. It was important because it gave me courage to do the same."

Jazz is a special challenge for cellists, because the genre's vocabulary is dominated by saxophone, piano, and trumpet phrasings from the '50s and '60s, and the cello doesn't have the same kind of percussive attack and quick decay. The cello can approach that phrasing if it's played pizzicato (i.e., if it's plucked), but if it's played in its most usual manner, with the bow, it doesn't even come close. And yet it's those bowed lines, with their dark, sustained tone, that have highlighted music from the Beethoven string quartets to the pop records of Brian Wilson and Alejandro Escovedo. So how can jazz take advantage of one of the expressive instruments in the European tradition?

"The breakthrough for me came when I subbed for the trombonist in Dave Douglas' band," Friedlander recalls. "Mark [Feldman] was already in the group, and to his credit, Dave heard the possibilities of a string band and started writing for it. There's a lot of chamber jazz that's really boring, but what Dave did that was really explosive. It wasn't an effete, delicate, treading lightly chamber situation. He used rhythm to make the cello as aggressive as his trumpet.

"Whenever I meet the very few cellists who want to improvise, I tell them, 'It's wide open--you can do anything you want. If you're too respectful and bow to the tradition, you won't have a chance. But if you throw out the tradition entirely, you're losing what's great about the instrument. Above all, you have to put yourself into the music. Otherwise you're just regurgitating.'"

Erik Friedlander plays at Peabody Conservatory's Griswold Hall Feb. 19 with the Mark Feldman Quartet. For more information, call (410) 659-8100, ext. 2, or visit

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