Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians
Friedlander, Erik (Verner)
Cellist Erik Friedlander has cultivated a personal style which blends the techniques of classical music with the improvisatory traditions of jazz and experimental music. After developing a firm reputation on New York's downtown scene in the 1980s, he has brought his innovative sound to prolific work with saxophonist John Zorn, pianist Fred Hersch, trumpeter Dave Douglas, and even pop singer Maxwell and filmmaker Spike Lee.
Erik Verner Friedlander was born on July 1, 1960 in New York City and raised in nearby Rockland County. Friedlander’s father Lee is a noted photographer that worked for Atlantic Records during the 1950s and 60s where he took pictures of pictures several celebrities of the jazz scene including bassist Charles Mingus, alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman and trumpeter Miles Davis.
Lee’s love for rhythm and blues and jazz had a profound affect on his young son. Lee filled their home with the music of pianist Ray Charles, pianist McCoy Tyner and tenor saxophonist John Coltrane amongst others. At the age of six, Friedlander began to play the guitar, then switched to the cello two years later. It wasn’t until the age of twelve that Erik began formal lessons on the instrument. In 1978, he enrolled as an undergraduate at Columbia University.
During his time at Columbia, Friedlander performed in an array on ensembles that helped to cultivate his sound. While Erik was studying music, it wasn’t until he met bassist Harvie Swartz that he decided to dedicate his career to music. In 1980, he became a member of Swartz’s quintet. The same year, Friedlander recorded his first record date with Swartz on the album Underneath It All for the Gramavision label.
Friedlander’s approach to the cello in the jazz idiom changed upon hearing cellist Hank Roberts perform in the string trio Arcado. Erik was fascinated with the role of the cello in the trio and found inspiration in the way Roberts performed. Upon graduating from Columbia in 1982, he began to support himself by doing session work and performing for shows throughout the New York City area.
In 1984, Friedlander appeared on alto saxophonist John Zorn’s album The Big Gundown: John Zorn Plays the Music of Ennio Morricone. The album featured several luminaries of the New York City jazz and improvisational community including guitarist Bill Frisell, pianist Wayne Horvitz, and alto saxophonist Tim Berne. On Sunday, June 25 1989, Erik married his wife Lynn Shapiro at the Capsouto Freres Restaurant in New York City.
Friedlander spent the remaining years of the 1980s honing his technique and developing his personal style. During this time, Erik formed the group Framework with violinist Laura Seaton. The group performed classical compositions as well as avant-garde pieces. The group would eventually include drummer Kevin Norton and they performed throughout the New York area at such noted venues such as the Knitting Factory. In 1991, the group released their self-titled album for the Newport Classics label.
The same year, Friedlander joined pianist Fred Hersch’s group Forward Motion, with whom he performed with until 1996. A highlight of his time with Hersch is the song “Frevo” from 1991’s Forward Motion. The song is of note due to how well Erik and Fred blend their timbres so effortlessly into one singular sound. The sheer power of that sound along with their use of unison lines help to create a unique modern design. Along with drummer Tom Rainey, the trio makes full use of the space by allowing each other time in the spotlight to showcase their abilities.
In 1992, Friedlander continued to build his performance experience by performing with trumpeter Dave Douglas’s group. The same year, Erik was part of the orchestra in trumpeter Terence Blanchard’s score to Spike Lee’s film Malcolm X. Other musicians featured on the score included saxophonist Branford Marsalis and pianist Sir Roland Hanna. The following year, he performed with Douglas on his album Parallel Worlds for the Soul Note label. The same year, Friedlander performed with saxophonist Ned Rothenberg’s group Power Lines.
In the early 1990s, Friedlander replaced Abdul Wadud in saxophonist Marty Ehrlich’s Dark Woods. In 1994, Erik began to increase his profile as a sideman outside of the jazz community by performing on pop singer Paula Cole’s debut record Harbinger. In 1995, he recorded alongside Ehrlich on his album Just Before the Dawn. In the mid 1990s, Friedlander performed with tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano’s quintet Symbiosis. In 1996, Erik performed on Lovano’s album Celebrating Sinatra, a tribute album to vocalist Frank Sinatra.
In 1994, Friedlander formed the group Chimera with clarinetist Chris Speed, bass clarinetist Andrew D’Angelo and bassist Drew Gress. The following year, the group released their self-titled debut for the Avant label under Friedlander’s name. In 1996, they released their second album Watchman for Zorn’s Tzadik label. The same year, Erik performed with alto saxophonist Lee Konitz on the album Strings for Holiday, a tribute album to singer Billie Holiday.
During this time, Friedlander performed in saxophonist Andy Laster’s group Interpretations of Lessness and pianist Myra Melford’s group The Same River Twice. Shortly after, Erik formed the Mix Quintet alongside percussionist Gerry Hemingway, pianist Marilyn Crispell, bassist Mark Helias and multi-instrumentalist J.D. Parran. In 1996, he recorded with R&B vocalist Maxwell on his debut album Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite.
The same year, Friedlander formed the group Topaz with Laster, bassist Stomu Takeishi and drummer Satoshi Takeishi. The group was originally formed to accompany a dance piece that his wife was choreographing. In 1997, the group recorded their self-titled album, which was ultimately released in 1999. 1997 also saw him performing with Zorn on the album Duras: Duchamp, a tribute album of sorts to the artists Marguerite Duras and Marcel Duchamp.
In 2000, Friedlander appeared on Rothenberg’s album Ghost Stories and tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin’s album Ramifications. The following year, Erik released his album Grains of Paradise. The album was his contribution to Tzadik Records’ “Radical Jewish Culture” series, an ongoing project to challenge the traditional notion of what Jewish music is. The album features the talents of guitarist Bryce Dessner, bassist Trevor Dunn and violinists Joyce Hammann and Karen Milne.
The following year, Friedlander continued his prolific recording schedule by contributing to Zorn’s album Madness, Love and Mysticism, Eskelin’s Vanishing Point and Douglas’s Witness. In 2003, Erik released his album Maldoror, his first album of unaccompanied compositions. The same year, he recorded with tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker under the name “Michael Brecker’s Quindectet.” On September 9, 2003, the group released the album Wide Angles for Verve Records.
2003 also saw the release of his album Quake for the Crytogramophone label. A shining example of his work on the album is the song “Aap Ki.” The song begins with the bass and cello performing a brief melodic motif pizzicato style before going into the verse where Friedlander performs a bow in unison with the saxophone. The overall song has a Middle Eastern quality to it, which Erik enhances with his performance by incorporating trills and other ornamentations.
In 2005, Friedlander performed with Hersch on his album Leaves of Grass, an album of poet Walt Whitman’s work set to music. The album features the musical talents of Drew Gress, trumpeter Ralph Alessi, trombonist Mike Christianson, and percussionist John Hollenback amongst others. The album was met with acclaim and reached the number nine position on Billboard Magazine’s Top Jazz Albums chart. The following year, Erik released the album Prowl, which features a rendition of the spiritual “A Closer Walk with Thee.” The band is especially impressive on the album’s opener “Howling Circle.”
The song begins with Friedlander and Laster performing a sixteenth note melodic motif in unison before segueing into a more legato phrase. After the conclusion of the melody the first time around, Erik improvises where he utilizes everything from brief phrases to long melodic devices. What is most striking about the song is the amount of technique Erik incorporates in the song, which is always in the edge between jazz and classical music.
In 2007, Friedlander released the album Block Ice and Propane, his first album for the SkipStone label. In January 2008, he recorded the album Broken Arm Trio alongside his group of the same name. The group consists of Dunn and drummer Mike Sarin with Erik only performing pizzicato. He named the band after the incident that prompted bassist Oscar Pettiford to begin playing the cello. Upon seeing the trio perform in March 2009, Nate Chinen of the New York Times said that Friedlander “possesses a deep, singing tone on his instrument, and when he gives into it completely, he can be a heartbreaker.”
Friedlander’s most recent projects include his contribution to percussionist Cyro Baptista’s album Infinito, which also features the talents of clarinetist/saxophonist Anat Cohen. Erik lives in New York City where he maintains an active performance and recording schedule.
Select Discography As a leader
As a leader
Grains of Paradise (2001)
Block Ice and Propane (2007) With Cyro Baptista
With Cyro Baptista
Infinito (2009) With Michael Brecker
With Michael Brecker
Wide Angles (2003)
With the Broken Arm Trio
Broken Arm Trio (2008) With Paula Cole
With Paula Cole
Harbinger (1994) With Dave Douglas
With Dave Douglas
Parallel Worlds (1993) With Marty Ehrlich
With Marty Ehrlich
Just Before the Dawn (1995) With Ellery Eskelin
With Ellery Eskelin
Ramifications (2000) With Framework
Framework (1991) With Fred Hersch
With Fred Hersch
Forward Motion (1991)
Leaves of Grass (2005) With Lee Konitz
With Lee Konitz
Strings for Holiday (1996) With Joe Lovano
With Joe Lovano
Celebrating Sinatra 1996)
Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite (1996)
With Ned Rothenberg
Ghost Stories (2000)
With Harvie Swartz
Underneath It All (1980) With John Zorn
With John Zorn
The Big Gundown: John Zorn Plays the Music of Ennio Morricone (1984)
Duras: Duchamp (1997)
Madness, Love and Mysticism (2001)
Contributor: Eric Wendell