ERIK FRIEDLANDER AND TOPAZ

Quake
Cryptogramophone CG 118

PERLIUIGI BLALDUCCI
Il Peso Delle Nuvole
Splasc (h) CDH 852.2

Building an improv band around a cello is no longer the novelty it would have been 10 years ago.

To give some examples: American expatriate Tristan Honsinger is all over European CDs whether they’re by big bands or small combos; Fred Lonberg-Holm seems to turn up on every second session recorded in Chicago; and Vancouver-based Peggy Lee has been a member of different-sized bands throughout North America and Europe.

Two of the most accomplished of this group of low-string benders are New York’s Erik Friedlander, best known for his membership in the Masada String Trio and pianist Myra Melford’s The Same River, Twice bands, and Amsterdam’s Ernst Reijseger, formerly of the Clusone Trio and the ICP Orchestra.

QUAKE gives Friedlander a platform on which to express his compositional ideas, while IL PESO DELLE NUVOLE, makes Reijseger’s cello an important construct in the Italian band of bassist Pierluigi Balducci. With very similar instrumentation, including drums and saxophone, plus Stomu Takeishi on the first CD, and Balducci on his own disc playing both electric and acoustic basses, the sessions offer an unparalleled opportunity to compare different products.

Classically trained Friedlander has packed 12 tunes on his session, which overall could probably have benefited from a bit more musical levity. However, Friedlander, whose other employers have included saxophonist Joe Lovano and classical violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, has plenty of room to express his versatility here.

Meanwhile, Bari-based Balducci, who plays in a world music group, as well as in jazz contexts with the likes of trumpeter Pino Minafra and saxophonist Tino Tracanna, takes more of a lighthearted approach to his nine compositions. IL PESO works best when he gives his ethnic considerations full reign, less so when his tunes replicate wan contemporary jazz.

To begin with QUAKE, “Gol Gham”, from the repertoire of Persian singer Googoosh, becomes a cello fantasia with definite Middle Eastern accents. From a mild beginning, it ratchets up in intensity only to subside into a steady, walking pace.

“Glass Bell”, on the other hand, written by the cellist like all tracks but two, has a sneaky Saturday Morning cartoon feel, fabricated from the cello’s andante pizzicato line. It also echoes some of the rock-improv experiments that the late cellist Tom Cora attempted. Certainly the mallet-driven rattling percussion from Satoshi Takeishi, who has worked with popularizes like flautist Herbie Mann and New Agers the Paul Winter Consort, is no jazz sound. Neither is the bass guitar solo — all thumb pops, fuzztones and Artrock slides — from his brother Stomu Takeishi, who improv bona fides include stints with Melford and reedist Henry Threadgill.

Alternately, “Beauty Beauty”, the CD’s longest track, has a burnished classical feel, mostly advanced by legato cello work. That abates mid-way through when Friedlander reenters following the others’ solos and gradually shatters his carefully pitched and modulated tones into first speedy suggestion of a freylach, then staccato triple stopping, slicing out extended slurs.

Alto saxophonist Andy Laster, whose notes bounce around that tune, produces a trilling line on the fast-paced “Biscuits”, that when coupled with the Takeishi brothers’ power groove suggests Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time band. Later, the reedist, who has played with everyone from The Julius Hemphill Sextet, to Lyle Lovett and his Large Band, adds a touch of avant-experimentation that includes octave-spanning blasts and circular twirls around Friedlander’s arco cello part.

Overall, the performers’ flexibility — which include classical kettledrum pitches, the sound of an African ngoni, low-key reed flutter tonguing and rock-style bass guitar forays — keeps the CD interesting. But, after a while, you wish there were fewer tunes so that the band could work out a consistent formula instead of parading musical chameleon tricks each time out.

Balducci has a similar challenge. The five Apulian musicians — including pianist Mirko Signorile, who has played with trumpeter Enrico Rava — are excellent on the rollicking quicker numbers that make up part of the disc. But when the tempo falls so does the players’ fervor. Legato seems to give way to largo and Roberto Ottaviano’s soprano saxophone lines are so blanched that you fear Smooth Jazz will arrive any minute. That’s particularly odd, since the veteran saxophonist has worked in elevated projects put together by thinkers like Italian pianist Giorgio Gaslini and Swiss drummer Pierre Favre.

Perhaps the shortcoming is Balducci’s. Since a recent film by Catherine Breillat used one of his compositions as its main theme, he may have fallen into the habit of imaging some pieces as accompanying music, rather than as standalone compositions. This is particularly apparent in the middle section of the disc, where a series of episodic, romantic ballads seem to offer up gracefulness and little else. Signorile’s slow, double-timed piano touch starts to sound less than Bill Evans-like expansiveness and more like Peter Nero’s empty facility.

Even the title track — in two parts — nearly sinks into lugubrious melancholy until bass guitar plucks, car horn-like sax cadences and some cello whacks on the strings gives it a lift. As drummer Vincenzo Lanzo, who has played with Rava and Minafra produces metallic cymbal chimes and drum rolls, the theme swells and his series of roughs and drags are smoothly answered by a combination of cello and saxophone tones.

The first and final version of “Woland’s Polka” puts one in mind of lively pieces from the Italian Instabile and Globe Unity Orchestra. Here the piano first carries the dance melody before going into right-handed tremolo tinkles, and the 2/4 rhythm is amplified by snaking arco cello lines and finger-picking guitar-like passages from the bassist. Reprised at the end of the CD, the tune is yet more extroverted, even anarchistic. With the theme bouncing along on steady bass guitar runs, Reijseger’s bowing suggests country fiddle hoedowns as much as Bohemian country-dances.

Balducci reserves his versatility for “Milonga Bajo La Luna”, the longest track. Here he shows off fleet passages on bass that could come from acoustic Spanish guitar, while the combination of strings and piano suggest a rural accordion band. Ottaviano squeezes out chirps, while Signorile produces a tango-like beat, until he unveils intersecting rhythms from each hand. Lanzo shuffles out a beat that swings in a non-jazz manner, and Reijseger constructs his solo from that small patch of strings beneath the tuning pegs.

When all five musicians come to a satisfying unison crescendo at the end you can hear exactly what Balducci as a composer, instrumentalist and bandleader is capable of creating. IL PESO DELLE NUVOLE could have used a bit more of that freedom, which hopefully will be on display next time out.

As it stands now, it’s only cellophiles who will probably be most impressed by this album and QUAKE.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Quake: 1. Consternation 2. After Hours 3. Bedlam 4. Gol Gham 5. Wire 6. Beauty Beauty 7. Quake 8. Sainted 9. Glass Bell 10. Biscuits 11. Aap Ki 12. Fig

Personnel: Quake: Andy Laster (alto saxophone); Erik Friedlander (cello); Stomu Takeishi (bass guitar, acoustic electric bass); Satoshi Takeishi (percussion)

Track Listing: Peso: 1. Woland’s Polka 2. Milonga Bajo La Luna 3. Son de la Rosa (intro) $. Son de la Rosa 5. Deviens Ce Que Tu Es 6. Leggero 7. Il Peso Delle Nuvole - part 1 8. Il Peso Delle Nuvole - part 2 9. Woland’s Polka (again)

Personnel: Peso: Roberto Ottaviano (soprano saxophone); Ernst Reijseger (cello); Mirko Signorile (piano); Pierluigi Balducci (bass, electric bass); Vincenzo Lanzo (drums)