A fixture on the East Village/Downtown scene for the past decade, Erik Friedlander has become the cellist in creative improvised music. With this record Topaz, Friedlander's longstanding quartet, returns with another offering of worldly delights. Among numerous other groups Topaz is Friedlander's "rhythm" band. Covering all bases from stripped-down funk to Middle Eastern dances and tender Indian ballads, this foursome stretches the fragile bounds of world music until they snap.
Although the world music tag might be a turnoff for some listeners, don't let that description sway you from checking out the group's richly dynamic efforts. With an unconventional lineup of cello, alto sax, hand percussion and fretless electric bass, it sounds like no one else. Other than Stomu Takeishi's warped take on fretless bass, the sound is completely acoustic in nature. This is no new-age, pseudo-ethnic fusion, no sir. Integration of the form is rule of the day, and the quartet smoothly synthesizes all of their disparate influences.
Take, for example, "Wire," a lively Eastern influenced piece that starts off straight enough but then breaks down at intervals for call and response improv between the soloists and rhythm section. The interplay varies the dynamics in a way that a more traditional dance tune would never dare to try. The delicate chamber counterpoint of the Indian ballad "Gol Gham" takes an entirely different direction, favoring melodic texture over rhythm changes. And then there is "Biscuits," a free form improvisational tour de force that shows the quartet at its most aggressive. The album closes with "Fig," a melancholy dirge, albeit one that features interjections by the band members that exhibit their instrumental acumen. The bass figures on this tune are more reminiscent of laconic turntable scratching than the sounds you would typically expect from a stringed instrument.
There is a startling amount of diversity on this album, although that diversity is more felt than heard. Topaz has a recognizable "sound," one that draws from influences around the globe. Taking indiscriminately from everything from free jazz to klezmer, Erik Friedlander has created a true hybrid, organic world music for the future.