Review: Erik Friedlander – Bonebridge
by S. Victor Aaron
Since Tom Cora’s tragic passing in 1998, there might not have been a more adventurous cellist on this planet than Erik Friedlander. Friedlander, however, is no Cora, who was at his best at the most freakish sides of jazz and rock. Friedlander seems to follow his muse more often than not to just about everywhere else.
We’ve steadily followed his output here since that turning-point album Block Ice and Propane (2007) and on through some very intriguing excursions through an anarchistic bass/cello/drums trio (Broken Arm Trio, (2008), the mostly solo cello achievement of Alchemy or the improvisation-with-composed-pieces of the commissioned work Fifty: 50 Miniatures For Improvising Quintet.
The path from Propane to Bonebridge is a short and straight one; the former established his reputation as not a chamber music cellist or jazz cellist or avant garde cellist, but a cellist who is easily defined by his instrument but impossible to define by a certain style of music. Nonetheless, there is this Americana vibe that pervades that 2007 album, even if he might not be playing Americana per se. On Bonebridge, though, the “Americana” is more than implied, it’s part and parcel to the record.
[Bonebridge, by Erik Friedlander’s Skipstone Records imprint, went on sale this week. Visit Mr. Friedlander’s site here.]
That’s no accident; when Friedlander was trying to come up for a concept for his newest project, he again reached back to the memories of his childhood and a particular trip he made with his father to a bluegrass festival in Virginia in 1971. As an eleven year old student of the cello, he quickly appreciated the legato of the slide guitar, but it was only now that he found a natural confluence between the cello and the slide guitar. For his slide foil, he turned to a guy from Memphis, Doug Wamble, who is known as a jazz musician with a solid grounding in Southern music forms. The bass and drum chairs are filled by Trevor Dunn and Mike Sarin, respectively, making this the Broken Arm Trio + Doug Wamble.
But it’s Broken Arm Trio Plus in personnel only, because as I explained earlier, Friedlander wanted to make a string music record, and he made a dandy one at that. The idea of putting together these two instruments from different musical worlds worked better than you think it might. The secret of this success comes from the leader himself: Friedlander’s distinctive playing style is very melody-savvy and his unmatched plucking technique approximates the nimbleness of a well fingerpicked guitar. No where is that more evident than on the single from this album “Beaufain Street,” an interaction between him and Wamble that put them in Marshall/Anger’s league. And…it sounds like a hell of a lot of fun. The ambling nature of “Low Country Cupola” calls to mind Bill Frisell’s Nashville moods, and on this opener, Friedlander puts us on notice that this is going to be a very melodically driven album.
“Tabatha” is where jazz shakes hands with bluegrass in the middle; constructed around a riff materialized during some improvisation, Friedlander made a country swing tune out of it that makes one think of Coltrane’s “Impressions” with an agrarian twist. “Transpontine” is another effective hybrid, combining the crisp and tight rhythm-keeping of Dunn and Sarin with the relaxed freewheeling traipse of the front line players. The appeal of “The Reverend” is its simple but memorable melody, expressed elegantly in unison by Wamble and Friedlander. On the other hand. the ending track “Down At Bonebridge” is more esoteric, and features some of Friedlander’s best bowed performances of the record, alternately aching and resolute. But always tasteful.
A hat tip goes out to the engineer Scott Solter, who captured this mostly live-in-the-studio undertaking with an ear for making a bluegrass recording, not a jazz one, each instrument heard distinctly with rural timbres. Even when these guys are doing making some “jazz” moves it still feels like bluegrass because of Solter’s handiwork.
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