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Erik Friedlander - Fifty: 50 Miniatures for Improvising Quintet (2010)

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Erik Friedlander
By Pico

Cello virtuoso Erik Friedlander must have found a second wind at 50 years old because yesterday he released his second album of all new material as many months. The album, incidentally, is called Fifty: 50 Miniatures For Improvising Quintet and in Friedlander's typically atypical fashion, it introduces a concept he hadn't tried on any album he has recorded before.

Friedlander was commissioned by the San Francisco Contemporary Jewish Museum in 2008 to compose a music collection of pieces inspired by the Hebrew alphabet. The resulting fifty tracks was completed and recorded in time for the museum's June, 2008 opening. But for general release under his Skipstone label, Friedlander listened to his wife's feedback on the work and as a result, rearranged and consolidated the fifty piece into seven, longer ones with the spaces between the individual pieces removed. It was sound advice. In doing so, the compiled tracks gain some traction and are chock full of surprises. By merely deciding on how to reorder the mini-compositions into fuller pieces, he was essentially composing with compositions.

Friedlander may have conceived the music on his own, but he didn't perform it without help. For this project, he formed an unusual quintet that included himself, Jennifer Choi on violin, Sylvie Courvoisier on piano, Travor Dunn on acoustic bass and Mike Sarin on drums and percussion. Such a configuration suggests a mixture of jazz and classical, and there's elements of both present, but both really act as elements that go into making modern creative music. If you haven't figured it out by now, these fifty snippets are very brief, with some running as brief as seven seconds. It was a complete coincidence when I suggested in last month's Alchemy review that it's usually for those little vignettes where Friedlander “lets it all hang out," and I only found out later he was preparing to release an album full of micro-tunes.

As these pieces were highly composed, the whole collection has the feel of chamber music, and in many spots that's probably how anyone would describe it. However, as the title itself suggests, within that context Friedlander leaves lots of little spots for free expression by not just himself but everyone else in the quintet. Even the drummer Darin's freelancing gets showcased, as we find about 2:55 into “Molting." I also likes how Friedlander leverages the contrasting timbres of the stringed instruments—-cello, violin and bass—-with the proficiency of a master classical composer. Yet, there are times where there is total group improvisation, as one erupts about two minutes into “Liquid," for example. True to his style, Friedlander thrives on contrasts and abrupt change-ups on this record.

Erik Friedlander might have been hesitant to present his commissioned work as a fifty-track CD, but he never wavered on the idea of releasing the material itself. He is consistently pushing his artistry upward and is not afraid to make us witnesses to it. Fifty is further testament to the heights Friedlander strives for in every project he undertakes and is why I pay attention every time he prepares a new release.

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