With his ability to pluck and bow powerful portraits of emotions ranging from the foot-stomping, rustic joy of a barn-packed hoedown (think of robust Regionalist murals by Thomas Hart Benton) to the contemporary solitude and loneliness of an urban dark night of the soul in New York City (think of Edward Hopper’s loners), Erik Friedlander is a one-of-a-kind cellist/composer.
While his artistic mission is to boldly go where no jazz cellist has gone before, the noted cutting-edge musician, who is the son of the legendary American photographer Lee Friedlander, sets down for three upcoming appearances in New Haven, one at the Yale University Art Gallery, where jazz photos by his father and bassist Milt Hinton are on exhibit, and two at the Iseman Theater as part of the International Festival of Arts and Ideas.
An artist who paints with sound—much as his famous photographer father painted his portraits of American life with light, shadow and shape-- Erik works with an expansive sonic palette that includes his fiery, finger-picking guitar-like virtuosity, double bass-like, Oscar Pettiford pizzicato lines and All-American blue-grass banjo-like evocations. Besides roots music mixed with dark, Pablo Casals-like, soul-shivering timbres and classical majesty, his memory-inspired music grooves with the irrepressible sound of surprise, graced with twists and turns in their narratives recounted with a poetic sense as upbeat and as much in the American grain as Carl Sandburg, as celebratory as Walt Whitman, or as lovely, dark and deep as Robert Frost. These Friedlander flights of imagination that simultaneously look to the past, live in the moment and peer into the future, sail on an undercurrent of lyricism and a fluid stream of melodic invention, artfully and compellingly done.
Most famously, memory is the prime-mover of Friedlander’s virtuosic solo work, Block Ice & Propane, a magnum opus drenched in Americana, alternately dreamy, meditative, nostalgic, exultant and magical. It was inspired by Friedlander’s loving recollections of his childhood adventures on the road rolling across the great American countryside nearly every summer until he was 17 with his family in their 1966 Chevy pickup truck fitted-out with a thin-shelled, makeshift camper equipped with a propane gas stove and a sink but no shower, no refrigerator.
Using 15 blocks of ice for refrigeration and propane for cooking and the trailer as their rolling roadside home, the traveling Friedlanders, Eric, his younger sister, Anna, his mom, Maria, and dad, Lee, combined business with pleasure on their continental excursions. Their annual vacation/odyssey was built around the father’s photo assignments and teaching gigs, whether he was shooting for a magazine cover, a jazz album for Atlantic Records, or chronicling the American landscape, capturing the essence of its iconic small towns, diners, national parks, campgrounds and patriotic parades.
What the father depicted with his lens on those family jaunts with his ambience-soaked images in the 1960s and '70s, the son, as a kind of collaborator some three decades later, portrays with his no less ambience-soaked music. Not only is the son inspired directly by his father’s atmospheric photographs, but also, in a Proustian way, by his own remembrance of things past from those summer treks when the Friedlanders would “light out for the territory” for two or three months of driving, camping, on-the-road adventures, sights and sounds and a panorama of exciting rites of passage that years later fueled Block Ice & Propane.
Memory, along with the spirit of solitude and loneliness of Edward Hopper’s world, is once again a catalytic force at play in Friedlander’s latest CD, Nighthawks, inspired by the famous Hopper painting of the same name. Among the new CD’s ingenious ingredients is the soulful chemistry between Friedlander on cello and the brilliant guitarist Doug Wamble, whose slide guitar playing creates the kind of earthy, moving sound that the cellist has been madly in love with since his boyhood days.
Friedlander's passion for that pristine country sound of slide guitar goes back to a road trip he took at age eleven to the Old South on a visit to the famous annual celebration of country and mountain music at Galax, Virginia. Roughing it with his family for three days on the fiddle-fest campground, which was jammed with tents and campers, Friedlander, who started out as a guitar player in first grade, was enthralled by the spontaneous grassroots jam sessions with country string masters picking on everything from banjos to bull fiddles. Most indelible of all were the seductive sounds of slide guitars, lap steel, and pedal steel guitars.
“Musicians just spilled out of their campers and their trucks and started ad hoc groups. Every evening they’d begin to play, turn their guitars sideways on their bellies and play lap top guitar,” Friedlander said by phone, recalling those jamboree sessions from his childhood with photographic vividness. “It was a sound that I wanted to try. Once I got that in my head, cello and slide guitar frontline music just came naturally after that.”
Nighthawks, which is also a memoir, was written, Friedlander said, by candlelight in the wake of the five-day power outage that blacked-out his lower Manhattan neighborhood in the wake of Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Suddenly, living in a world without power and enveloped in what he calls an environment of “quiet and solitude,” the situation evoked a Hopper state of mind, reminding him of the painter’s iconic images of lonely urban night haunts like pool halls, diners, gas stations and bus depots.
With a sense of mystery and solitude heightened by the darkened city streets, it was enough, Friedlander said, to make you feel like you were living in a Hopper painting. It was certainly enough for him to compose, by candlelight, such illuminating, Hopperesque pieces as the title song, Nighthawks, along with a mini-gallery of nine evocative pieces, including "Hopper's Blue House," "26 Gasoline Stations," and "Poolhall Payback."
The title of one of the CD's painterly pieces, "Nostalgia Blindside," offers a clue to Friedlander's use of memory as a catalyst for his art, whether his muse is Hopper or childhood recollections of lying in the back of the camper peering out into the mysterious night sky, half-dreaming, as his father drove the Chevy pickup out into the night to the next stop on their picaresque pilgrimage.
“You just never know about memory,” Friedlander said, trying to explain the mystery of memory. “It could be a smell, or a sight, or something else that will trigger nostalgia, or a feeling of a memory just comes back, and it’s like, bam! You’re blindsided by it. It can hit you at the strangest moment. So the title, 'Nostalgia Blindside,' refers to that feeling I get sometimes when a memory comes back. It just seems like, ‘God where did that come from?’” he said.
Here’s the schedule for Friedlander’s New Haven appearances: He performs at 5:30 pm on Thursday, June 12, at Yale University Art Gallery, 1111 Chapel Street, presenting his Oscar Pettiford Project with saxophonist Michael Blake, bassist Chris Tordini and drummer Michael Sarin. Admission-free, the concert complements the gallery’s exhibition Jazz Lives: The Photographs of Lee Friedlander and Milt Hinton. Information: artgallery.yale.edu.
The cellist goes solo with his virtuosic performance of Block Ice & Propane at 1:00 pm on Saturday, June 14, at the Iseman Theater, 1156 Chapel Street, as part of the International Festival of Arts and Ideas. A multi-media performance, the presentation includes personal anecdotes and is illustrated with projections of Lee Friedlander’s photographs and by road films especially created by the noted American filmmaker Bill Morrison. Admission: $35, $55. Friedlander also performs Block Ice & Propane on Friday, June 13, at the Iseman Theater at the Festival’s Gala Kick-off. Information: artidea.org.
Carter Serves Southern Comfort
The diverse festival’s jazz offerings also feature the premier violinist Regina Carter digging deep into Southern roots music at 8 pm on Tuesday, June 17, at Morse Recital Hall, 470 College Street. Winner of a MacArthur genius award, Carter celebrates the music her paternal grandfather would have heard in the South in a presentation called Southern Comfort, an intoxicating concoction of Cajun fiddle music, early gospel and coal miners’ work songs mixed with contemporary flavors. Tickets: $35.00/55.00.
Fujii’s Fine Firehouse Finale
Tokyo-born pianist Satoko Fujii kicks-off a North American tour with her acclaimed Satoko Fujii Trio +1 at 8:30 and 10:00 pm on Friday, June 13, at Firehouse 12, 45 Crown Street in New Haven. Her trio mates are bassist Todd Nicholson and drummer Yoshi Shutto, while the +1 in the group’s name is trumpeter Kappa Maki. The combo is touring in support of its recent album, Spring Storm (Libra Records).
Her performance marks a classy season finale for Firehouse 12’s Spring Jazz Series. Tickets: $18.00, first set; $12.00, second set. Information: firehouse12.com and (203) 785-0468.
Boneshakers Invade Pioneer Valley
Boneshaker, the aptly named powerhouse, free jazz trio, demonstrates its scorched-earth, take-no- prisoners strategy at 7:30 pm on Saturday, June 14, as it storms Gateway City Arts, 92 Race Street in Holyoke, Massachusetts.
While winning commendations for its bold, frontal attacks, as on such musical declarations of war as its Hostilities in Progress, the fearsome threesome can also, as on its Beauty of Sadness, hold back on its firepower, executing a dramatic about-face from its fierce warrior mode to reveal its high-caliber poetic side as well.
The Boneshakers are Mars Williams, a god of war on reeds; Kent Kessler on bass; and the Norwegian phenom Paal Nilssen-Love on drums. Typical of the cutting-edge swat team’s wide-sweeping versatility and diverse resumes, Williams has campaigned heroically through multiple genres, including free jazz, funk, hip-hop and rock, and has played and recorded above and beyond the call of duty with artists ranging from Billy Idol and Jerry Garcia to John Scofield and Bill Laswell.
The performance is presented by Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares, a non-profit, grassroots group that underwrites its concerts by selling “jazz shares,” pre-payments to help fund future events. Shares and concert tickets are $15.00 each, and are available at jazzshares.org and at the door.
Charles Neville Plays Benefit
Saxophonist Charles Neville, one of the renowned Neville brothers, performs with friends at 7:00 pm on Thursday, June 12, at a fundraiser hosted by Asylum Hill Congregational Church in support of Spectrum in Motion, a Hartford-based dance and education program.
Neville plays multiple genres from R&B and blues to jazz and funk, and cites influences ranging from Professor Longhair to John Coltrane. Tickets: $20.00 in advance; $25.00 at the door. Asylum Hill is at 814 Asylum Avenue in Hartford. Tickets: brownpapertickets.com/event/609508
From Jazz Club to Art Museum
Singer June Bisantz performs at 7:00 pm on Saturday, June 14, at one of the newest jazz venues in the area, 226 Jazz at 226 Broad Street in Windsor. Tickets: $20.00. Information: 226jazz.org and (860) 219-1947.
On the next day, the singer, who’s also a noted visual artist, leads her trio Sunday, June 15, at a Father’s Day Brunch at the venerable Wadsworth Atheneum, 600 Main Street in Hartford. Helping Bisantz frame her vocal art are pianist Alex Nakhimovsky and guitarist Norman Johnson. Seatings: 11:00 am and 12:30 pm. Admission: $35.00; $25.00, museum members. Reservations: (860) 838-4100.
Hard-swinging baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan performs with bassist Ray Drummond and drummer Billy Drummond at 7:30 pm on Saturday, June 14, at Japanalia Eiko, Hartford. Admission: $48.00 stage-side table seating; $28.00 general row seating. Reservations: (860) 232-4677.
Baritone saxophonist Norman Gage and trumpeter Kenny Reed lead their quintet at 7:00 pm on Thursday, June 12, at J’s Crab Shack in Hartford. They’re backed by pianist Tabor Gable, bassist Alex Tremblay and drummer Jay Williams. Information: (860) 231-9545.
Pianist John Brighenti links up with singer Karen Frisk and bassist Matt Dwonszyk at 6:00 pm on Thursday, June 12, at Casa Mia On the Green in Rocky Hill. Admission: free. Information: (860) 563-7000.
Guitarist Sean Clapis leads his trio at 2:00 pm on Saturday, June 13, in the admission-free series at Integrity ’n Music in Wethersfield. He’s joined by bassist Ben Thomas and drummer Jocelyn Pleasant. Information: (860) 563-4005.
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