Erik Friedlander's American Road Trip

I’ve listened several times these past few weeks to Erik Friedlander’s new CD, Block Ice & Propane (on the Skipstone Records label), a haunting, sprawling, majestic piece of Americana. The album is subtitled “Taking Trips to America: Compositions and Improvisations for Solo Cello,” and that sums it up. The cellist’s father is the master photographer, Lee Friedlander. When Erik was growing up, Lee would spend summers driving a 1966 Chevy pickup truck around the country, taking pictures, and he’d take the family along: he and his wife in the front, often blasting the radio, Erik and his sister in the thin shelled-box camper up above, watching the clouds and the road markers flash by. Block Ice & Propane—named after the old techniques for keeping food chilled and gas stoves lit—is a remembrance of those summers, an elegy for innocent adventure, a musical road trip in its own right.

Erik Friedlander is best known as the spirited cellist in John Zorn’s various string ensembles—most notably Bar Kokhba, the Masada String Trio, and the Masada String Sextet—but his solo work here (with some shrewd overdubs, occasionally on tuning forks) reveals a new level of virtuosity and a wider range of emotional depth. He sometimes plucks the strings in the style of a jazz bassist or guitarist, combining that with a modern classicist’s sense of harmony—Copland’s open chords but also Crumb’s gnarly grit—and rhythmic nods toward early folk, blues, and (yes, a little bit) jazz.

Above all, Friedlander evokes a palpable sense of time passed and landscape rumbled through. His compositions, at first, seem little influenced by his father’s style; they don’t roam in the same terrain of irony and social commentary. But listen further, and another family trait shines through: the uncanny potency of the well-placed detail. It’s how the slightest juxtapositions reveal so much about a place and a people. In the father’s photos, it’s the intersection of, say, a road sign, a telephone pole, and an old man ambling across a street. In the son’s music, it’s the convergence of a flatted third, a major-seventh chord, and a spritz of reverb.

Last week, I wrote about Maria Schneider, who also has an uncanny knack for translating the sensation of journey into music. Schneider composes her jazz symphonies from an aerial perspective—they have the whish of sky dives, eagle soars, balloon rides. Friedlander keeps his grip on the road. You sense the vistas and the sunsets, but also the bumps, the swerves, the lightning storms, and the wolf howls.

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Comments
Stephen Mejias's picture

Excellent piece of writing, Fred. And now Block Ice & Propane is on my "To Buy" list. Thanks!

Lawrence (USMA 1951)'s picture

Fred I have some comments from a West Pointer on your recent article. How do I contact you ?

Fred Kaplan's picture

Lawrence - Write me at war_stories@hotmail.com.

Richard Kamins's picture

You're right about this great CD - it brings to mind the solo Lp by Abdul Wadud ("By Myself", self-released 1977). You rightly mention the cellist's involvement with Bar Kochba Strings and other Zorn projects but Friedlander also leads a fine quartet (Topaz) with saxophonist Andy Laster and the rhythm section of Satoshi and Stomu Takeishi. They have 3 CDs, the latest being "Prowl" released in 2006 on Cryptogramophone. The group's music is funky and challenging.I enjoy your reviews - thanks for keeping us informed.

metrix's picture

His compositions, at first, seem little influenced by his father’s style; they don’t roam in the same terrain of irony and social commentary. But listen further, and another family trait shines through: the uncanny potency of the well-placed detail. It’s how the slightest juxtapositions reveal so much about a place and a people.

Halo's picture

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