The transformation of the cello
by Piotr Michalowski
The cello has never been a major jazz instrument. In the 1950s and 1960s a number of important bass players used it on occasion, even if they sometimes cheated, tuning it like its bigger cousin. Chico Hamilton used the cello to good effect in his very popular quintet, which featured the pioneering work of Fred Katz, but the exotic instrumentation, which included guitar and flute, provided the group's unique sound, and the quintet had no followers. In the last quarter of the last century improvised music threw off many traditional notions, and one of the results was the opening up of the sound palette, offering a place for all sorts of instruments that had been neglected or marginalized in earlier times.
The cello, though still played by only a precious few, began to find its voice in the new music. Amplification helped, and even Albert Ayler, one of the great wailing saxophone voices of the day, sometimes included a cellist in his bands. Abdul Wadud, who came out of the St. Louis new jazz tradition, demonstrated that a cello could be as funky as a bass guitar, and others, such as Tristan Honsinger, Ernst Reijseger, David Eyges, Rufus Cappadocia, and Hank Roberts, developed new ways of utilizing the instrument in solo and ensemble contexts. By the time Erik Friedlander arrived on the scene, the cello was no longer a novelty.
Friedlander began his musical life with the classics, and after graduating from college in 1978 he took on the life of a journeyman musician, playing in orchestras, chamber groups, commercial recording sessions, and Broadway pit bands. He began to work with other members of the New York "downtown" scene, gravitating toward new music and improvisation. By the early 1990s he was appearing regularly with people like John Zorn and Dave Douglas, and suddenly his career bloomed.
In addition to countless recording sessions run by others, he started to release his own finely crafted CDs. Suddenly, he
was the New York cellist of choice, but his own releases demonstrated that he was also a gifted composer and arranger who reveled in crossing genre boundaries, utilizing influences from Eastern Europe and the Americas as well as from Asia.
He never really left the classics and session work behind, and he has appeared on countless recordings, but the traditional technique that he developed early has also served him well in more radical contexts. Friedlander can bow beautiful long legato phrases, but he has also expanded the vocabulary of the cello in many directions, plucking, bowing, and drumming an amazing variety of sounds from his instrument. He can fit himself into any context, but he can also perform alone, playing multiple lines and accompanying himself with the kind of self-sufficiency one expects only from a pianist. His fine sense of musical structure, so apparent in his compositions, is also evident in his solo improvisations.
Erik Friedlander is at the Kerrytown Concert House on Saturday, April 24.
[Originally published in April, 2004.]