Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Broken Arm Trio

Broken Arm Trio
Erik Friedlander, Mike Sarin, Trevor Dunn
Skipstone Records

If you have seen the classic Sweet Smell of Success you might have noticed Fred Katz, a cello player looking as if he would be more at home on a college campus than in a jazz club as a member of Chico Hamilton’s group. Katz was among a handful of cellists to improvise in a jazz context, the most prominent of whom was the bassist Oscar Pettiford. After breaking his arm, Pettiford discovered he could still handle the smaller cello. On that instrument he would eventually record some classic jazz albums, like My Little Cello, which became a favorite of multi-genre cellist Erik Friedlander. Taking inspiration from Pettiford, Friedlander has formed the Broken Arm Trio, whose first self-titled session has recently been released.

Friedlander has worked with experimental improvisers like John Zorn, Dave Douglas, and Marty Ehrlich. As a leader, he has recorded for the Radical Jewish Culture Series on Zorn’s Tzadik label. However, following in the Pettiford tradition, Friedlander’s originals on Arm, are largely grounded in swing. Yet sometimes his music has a minimalist quality somewhat akin to some of Zorn’s work, due to the spacious arrangements and unusual instrumentation. Drummer Mike Sarin and bassist Trevor Dunn (co-founder of the eccentric alt-rock band Mr. Bungle) join Friedlander on cello, who eschews the bow in favor of pizzicato plucking for most of the session.

Arm starts with “Spinning Plates,” an up-tempo bop workout, propelled by Sarin’s swinging brush work. It also features successive solos from Friedlander and Dunn, immediately contrasting the higher pitch of the cello with that of the bass. On the next track, one of only two instances of bowed arco playing is heard on the elegant “Pearls.”

Given their unusual instrumentation, the Arm Trio often sounds surprisingly bluesy, like on the cool-toned “Ink,” which starts with what might be called “walking” cello, or the downright greasy “Tiny’s.” While all members of the trio have wide comfort zones for inside-outside music, the brief “Jim Zipper,” is about as abstract as Arm gets. It is also an effective showcase of the remarkable sounds Sarin can produce on his kit.

Nicely coalescing as a unit, the Broken Arm Trio can claim a unique sound, creating some unusual but accessibly swinging music. Friedlander’s originals have distinctive, off-kilter melodies that are interpreted with relaxed eloquence by the trio. Altogether, Arm makes quite a convincing case for the jazz cello.