Just imagine what it would be like if a whole army of musicians like Erik Friedlander were to invade the stage of your favorite orchestra hall. All that frightening finesse, the ability to casually fling out an erudite musical parlance, cleverly concealed behind the single veil of next-door-neighborly banality. Compared to the sight of Friedlander and his cello at Kerrytown Concert House this past Saturday evening, Al Gore standing still would look wild. Thus the effect of an all-Friedlander orchestra would be comparable to that of watching a hundred Mr. Rogers (the popular PBS afternoon entertainer) at a hockey game, in a gospel choir, drinking Mountain Dew or participating in a similar activity that would normally entail an exertion of emotion: A logical impracticality.
Yet Friedlander”s performance Saturday proved that one such extremely inconspicuous musician actually does exist, which almost certainly implies that there are more masked musical heroes out in the streets, soloing savagely behind a low-profile or an uncommon instrument.
Friedlander specializes in a popular downtown experimental jazz hybrid that”s usually seasoned with Eastern-European folk songs and a strong sense of composition. Perhaps, then, there”s also someone playing mad Argentinean dance music under cover of a prosaic faade and someone else who grinds the organ like Martha Stewart bakes pies.
A diverse musical underground?
You might argue.
“If Friedlander represents the calm end of some musical personality spectrum, the very existence of a spectrum should necessitate the existence of an opposing example, someone on the other end of the scope. And, really, how many world class cello improvisers are out there?”
By many accounts, the answer is two the other a Dutchman named Ernst Reijsenger. He has long, unkept hair that flails about, wild and untamed like the bumpy musical path of his improvisations. On stage, Reijsenger is generally as interesting to watch as he is to hear: At any given performance, he”s likely to play his cello with the wrong side of the bow, rub his licked fingers against the instrument”s body like a DJ scratching a record and slung his cello across his lap guitar-wise to strum it with a square shaped key chain (so that the keys jingle to the beat of his hand sweeping).
In a certain sense, this superficial disparity between the mild-mannered American and the outspoken restless European improvising cello giant says a lot about the difference between the two continents” experimental jazz schools.
Although the music Friedlander performed with his quartet, Topaz, Saturday often climaxed into a chaotic bubbling of sobbing saxophone, bass plunking, mallet splats and banging bow strings, all the fray came within the confines of an ordered context. Over the last few decades, much of European improvised music has moved toward a less structured, quite abstract approach to ensemble playing and/or a heavy reliance on theatricality.
Between Dutch piano legend Misha Mengelberg and the British saxophone technician John Butcher, both ends of the Continental spectrum will be available for Kerrytown audiences tomorrow evening.
In deed, Mengelberg actually coined the phrase “instant composition” for the improvisational approach of the Instant Composers Pool Orchestra, which he founded in 1967 with drummer Han Bennink and saxophonist Willem Breuker. And, in addition to Breuker”s Kollektief (which was formed when Breuker left the ICP Orchestra with several of its members in the early “70s), Mengleberg is largely responsible for having established the current Dutch jazz flair for absurd musical drama (one of the pianist”s earlier performances consisted of him sawing a chair into the shape of a camel to the accompaniment of an orchestra).
Moreover, Mengelberg, along with Breuker, instigated the BIM, an organization that manages regular grants for jazz from the Dutch government. The existence of such government-sponsored commissions partially explain why avant-garde jazz is more accepted in Europe than the States why relatively obscure American musicians like Friedlander find more success even some name recognition touring there.
As a soloist, Mengelberg is never content to stick to any one idea. In his improvisations, one musical concept is quickly abandoned for another, an endless series of statements and deconstructions. At times he sounds quite classical, developing a complex, unsyncopated series of linking phrases only to plunge a moment later into mighty fistfuls of clashing keys, like the misplaced trajection of a frantic cat clawing across a cold keyboard. Regardless, there”s usually a noticeable trace of Thelonious Monk inspired off-beat syncopation.
Alone and together with Butcher, who is reputed for his sensitive and complex manipulation of extended and electronic saxophone techniques, Mengelberg should provide the perfect European foil for last weekend”s performance by Friendlander.