One of the most highly regarded cellists in today's creative improvised music scene, Erik Friedlander has been integral to projects led by saxophonist John Zorn, pianist Sylvie Courvoisier and a host of others. But his prolific yield as a sideman has at times overshadowed his own work. Prowl, a testament to Friedlander's talents as a composer and bandleader, should remedy that.
Friedlander's Topaz quartet -- with Andy Laster on alto saxophone and clarinet and the Takeishi brothers Stomu on bass and Satoshi on percussion -- celebrates its tenth anniversary with this, the group's fourth CD. Their collective history is reflected in the performances: the fluid movement during ensemble passages and the musicians' seamless switching of roles between soloist and accompanist, or melody and rhythm, as the music demands. This chameleon-like prowess subverts the obvious for refreshing twists. Topaz has always been rhythmically oriented, Friedlander explains in the liners, and on Prowl the compositions are built around various African musical traditions. When transplanted to this instrumentation, the results are dramatic.
"Howling Circle" opens with a flash of cello pyrotechnics while Satoshi builds the relentless off-kilter two-hit pattern as the foundation for Friedlander's smoothly bowed melancholic line, later doubled by Laster's alto for an affecting conclusion. Clarinet and cello blend for the charming lilt of "Anhinga"; Friedlander's pizzicato during his solo alters the texture, providing contrast, while Laster uses the lovely theme for an ethereal turn, eventually flowing back into unison.
The Takeishis provide the structure for "Chanting," which steadily builds as cello and sax swirl around a complex rhythmic pattern, ultimately joining together for an emphatic theme. Stomu takes a solo run on the subdued unfolding of "Rain Bearers," playing against type. Throughout the recording, Satoshi's atypical percussive palette colors the tunes for ambience and effective punctuation. Topaz's collective talents culminate on the closing "Najime," whose melody's heightened urgency propels the group to a rousing finish.