Erik Friedlander's last release was a solo effort, 2004's excellent Maladror, a work that found Friedlander reacting musically to selected works by Isidore Ducasse. The cellist hasn't been sedentary these past few years; he's been working in new groups of his own direction, as well as performing as a sideman to artists as diverse as John Zorn, John Vanderslice and vocalist Chris McNulty. But he also returned to his Topaz quartet, with whom he released three albums between 1999 and 2003. Prowl is the latest in the series, laid down in a 48-hour span in Los Angeles. The schedule was likely quite hectic, but the resultant music feels anything but.
The bulk of Prowl was composed by Friedlander, and the album bears his name, but, within the album's performance, he's not such a prominent force. Andy Laster, on alto sax and clarinet, usually finds his way to the forefront, in terms of both the album’s production and his role as Friedlander's melodic foil. The Takeishi brothers, Stomu and Satoshi, on electric bass and percussion, respectively, provide the prominent rhythms. And while Friedlander's compositions retain a congenial and approachable air, the Takeishis are often more active that it first appears.
The disc is a smooth affair, so much so that it can be off-putting, and sometimes the more interesting interactions of its participants can be masked by the album's sleek veneer. Even when they're busy, Topaz go to work with a straightforward, simplistic verve, the sort of panache which makes everything sound easy. This is a credit to their professionalism and talent, no doubt, but Prowl just might benefit from some ragged edges. The disc can be downright beautiful, but when things become more boisterous, the music never seems to truly let go, and the energy of the music never leaves the realm of the "cool"; and it would have been a much-needed vacation. Friedlander and Laster's melodic highlights, twisting paths played in unison, are tightly wound, cleanly plotted and played. The Takeishis, not simply slaves to the rhythm, lace Prowl with their own flourishes, but seemingly always with an eye on the more structured path to which they'll soon return.
In some senses, it's hard to find much wrong with Prowl. It's a tastefully and carefully composed album, executed spotlessly and produced with a crystalline shine. But, even if Topaz's aim was such a polished pearl, that doesn't mean that the disc wouldn't benefit from a more transparent exhibit of the sweat, energy and determination that undoubtedly went into its creation. Perhaps it's just the cynic's distrust of anything this close to perfection.