Erik Friedlander, cello – Oscalypso [TrackList follows] – Skipstone

Erik Friedlander, cello – Oscalypso [TrackList follows] – Skipstone SSR22, 44:16 [10/22/15] ****:

(Erick Friedlander – cello, producer; Michael Blake – saxophone; Trevor Dunn – bass; Michael Sarin – drums)

Cellist Erik Friedlander has done something he’s never done before. On his latest effort, the 44-minute Oscalypso, he’s created a project of cover tunes. Oscalypso is named after —and is a tribute to—famed bassist Oscar Pettiford, who died in 1960 at age 37. During his short career, Pettiford was a leader, recorded with Dizzy Gillespie and Coleman Hawkins, and was one of the architects of bebop. Equally important, Pettiford is respected as a forerunner in using the cello as a solo instrument in jazz. Friedlander has been utilizing the cello as a primary jazz instrument since the 1990s, and explains “When you are an improvising cellist there is not so much history to contemplate and learn from.” Other jazz cellists include Fred Katz and Abdul Wadud, but Pettiford was and continues to be a big influence.

Oscalypso includes interpretations of nine Pettiford compositions which Friedlander arranged for his quartet, which comprises Friedlander on cello (he also produced this album), saxophonist Michael Blake (who has worked with Ben Allison and John Lurie), bassist Trevor Dunn (whose credits include John Zorn; Dunn is also co-founder of avant-rock band Mr. Bungle) and drummer Michael Sarin (see also Allison as well as Myra Melford and Drew Gress). Sarin, Dunn and Friedlander have previously collaborated in the Broken Arm Trio (which alludes to the time Pettiford had his arm in a sling and switched to the less physically demanding cello).

The cello, sax, bass and drums set-up may seem unusual. But make no mistake; this is one tight outfit which can and does swing. The charming collection showcases a stylistic range of moods and tones based on Pettiford’s material, from jaunty to sublime. The foursome opens with Pettiford’s most famous tune, “Bohemia After Dark.” Dunn and Friedlander team up to craft idyllic string harmonics, while Blake adds some light agitation via his tenor sax. Over the course of six minutes, the quartet teems with striking melodics, abundant harmonies and entrancing rhythm statements. There’s an intriguing texture of nostalgia and modernity on the title track, which has a plucky and optimistic demeanor. “Oscalypso” focuses on reconfiguration but doesn’t abandon what makes this a memorable and enjoyable number, and a highpoint is hearing how Friedlander and Blake trade lines. There’s also a sense of fun which permeates the pun-characterized “Cello Again,” which swings with aplomb and appeal. This is a nice vehicle which displays two of Pettiford’s compositional gifts: elegance and a cheerful charisma.

One of the other highlights is Pettiford’s “The Pendulum at Falcon’s Lair,” which Pettiford taped in 1956. The tune’s title refers to the Falcon Lair, a jazz jam session place and recording site on a Beverly Hills estate. This is yet another cut with a bright temperament which progresses ahead with tricky, but always swinging, solos by Blake, Friedlander and Sarin. Pettiford’s writing could also be pensive and thoughtful, and that quality is found during the melancholy “Two Little Pearls,” where Friedlander and Blake offer a deeply rich center for group improvisation and interplay. “Tamalpais Love Song,” one of Pettiford’s lesser-known tracks, also has a shaded sensation, like soundtrack music from a film noir. Friedlander strums, thrums, and uses his arco bow to generate a lyrical experience which lingers long after the final note cascades away. Friedlander and his group conclude with two notable numbers. “Cable Car” is carefree and sprightly, and Blake is entertaining throughout on his playful sax. “Sunrise Sunset” has a flamenco/tango-inspired arrangement, which tidily and imaginatively steps away from Pettiford’s accustomed bebop forms. Friedlander begins with a flamenco flourish as an introduction and then digs into a tango theme which is boosted via his supple arco adornments. Sarin contributes lissome, animated percussion and a slight Middle Eastern drum pattern. Oscalypso is a pleasing acknowledgment of Pettiford’s talent, but it is also a reminder that the cello should be considered a significant lead instrument in a jazz setting. And of course, this CD is a wonderful platform for Friedlander’s abilities as a distinguished player as well as an adroit interpreter.

TrackList: Bohemia After Dark; Oscalypso; Cello Again; Two Little Pearls; Pendulum at Falcon’s Lair; Tricotism; Tamalpais Love Song; Cable Car; Sunrise Sunset.

—Doug Simpson

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