In the space of its two recordings, jazz cellist Erik Friedlander’s quartet Topaz has provided a working definition of “leaps and bounds.” The subtle tunes on its eponymously titled debut showcased some promising tone poetry–especially in the interaction of Friedlander’s voluptuous arco work and Andy Laster’s wide-planed alto sax–but the album rarely caught fire, suggesting more possibilities than it explored. On last year’s Skin (Siam), though, Topaz hardly sounds like the same group: the rhythms are sharper and deeper, and the bottomless grooves of brothers Stomu Takeishi (five-string electric bass) and Satoshi Takeishi (percussion, including steel and frame drums) exploit their Japanese heritage–specifically, the meditative intensity of taiko drumming–as well as the Balkan-influenced clockwork and third-stream music that influenced the first record. On Skin Friedlander blends these elements in his own compositions, and fashions suitable mixing vessels out of some unlikely covers: a long-forgotten Henry Mancini tune, “Susan,” from the Orson Welles film Touch of Evil; an obscure Santana song, “Golden Dawn”; Charles Mingus’s rarely recorded “Eclipse”; and the Julius Hemphill composition that gives the album its title. Friedlander and Laster–best known for his contributions to the Manhattan “new klezmer” scene–have established a timbral dialogue that ranges from intimate caresses to razor’s-edge ripostes, taxing the limits of their instruments’ tones. And Friedlander has utterly shed whatever constraints he might’ve felt on Topaz’s debut disc: his bowing soars thrillingly, his pizzicato playing has renewed bite, and he makes measured use of extramusical sounds. Admittedly, the cello has had only about a dozen jazz exponents, and barely a handful of great ones, but Friedlander has secured his place as the most accomplished improviser on the instrument–and even more impressive, he’s built a band and repertoire that challenge and magnify his virtuosity instead of merely supporting it. Monday, March 26, 7 PM, Preston Bradley Hall, Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington; 312-744-6169.


Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Patti Perret.