There’s a tendency in the jazz world, and elsewhere, to focus on the newcomer, the next discovery, the fresh voice. That allure has appeal. But it’s equally thrilling to hear musicians who have spent decades refining their craft and honing their skills. Unlike the aging ballplayer who still understands pitch sequences but can no longer catch up to a fastball, old pro musicians can still get it done physically and have developed a refined aesthetic touch.
It’s always exciting to be in the presence of veteran musicians. Their accumulated knowledge is impressive, they are unperturbed by unexpected circumstances, and they have lots of stories to tell. When four seasoned artists are in the same band, well that can be a transcendent experience.
Such was the case on May 6, when Erik Friedlander’s quartet, The Throw, performed at Hawks & Reed in Greenfield, MA. The cellist was joined by Uri Caine, piano, Mark Helias, bass, and Ches Smith, drums. All but Smith are over 60.
Their 80-minute set (including an encore) featured a generous amount of material from A Queen’s Firefly, released last year on Friedlander’s Skiptone Records. Each of the pieces, all penned by Friedlander, had strong melodies, distinct rhythmic contours and specific points of view. Most featured multiple changes of tempo, including generous helpings of swing. The concert, attended by over 70 happy listeners, flew by.
Cellist Erik Friedlander, now 62, has been leading ensembles for almost 30 years, and has released 25 recordings under his name. He has been a close collaborator of John Zorn since the 1990s, and has extensive experience composing for film and TV (“Oh Lucy!”, “Thoroughbreds”, “The Romanoffs”). His father is the acclaimed photographer Lee Friedlander, and Block Ice & Propane, the first of his 15 recordings on Skiptone, captures cross-country family vacations built around his father’s work. Friedlander is an expressive soloist on cello, an instrument as present as it’s ever been in jazz. He is a consummate composer and a bandleader with a knack for constructing ensembles able to convey his musical thoughts.
I first met Uri Caine in 2002, when he presented his brilliant, expansive version of Bach’s Goldberg Variations as part of the UMass Magic Triangle Jazz Series. His sly take on this piece of the canon was both reverent and subversive, and I became an instant fan. This work, and Caine’s other classical music reimagining’s, can be found on Winter & Winter. In 2001, Caine and fellow Philadelphian’s Christian McBride and Questlove produced The Philadelphia Experiment, which was funky in the extreme. And when you consider his fusion trio, Bedrock, and his “straightahead” jazz chops, you realize you’re dealing with an artist who can play whatever music the moment demands. On Saturday, there were flashes of his prodigious technique, but he spent much of the evening providing just the right riffs and voicings to show off the contour of each composition.
The Magic Triangle Series presented the Mark Helias Quartet in 1997, by which time I was already familiar with the five outstanding Enja recordings he produced between 1985-95. Helias has been a regular visitor to western Massachusetts over the years, appearing as the Marks Brothers with fellow bassist Mark Dresser, with Joe Lovano and Tom Giampietro in a tribute to Ed Blackwell, BassDrumBone (with Ray Anderson and Gerry Hemingway), the Michael Gregory Jackson Trio and the Jane Ira Bloom Quartet. It was great to have the hip, loquacious, (and important) bassist back in the Valley. The 72 year old veteran provided a deep, soulful bottom that sounded wonderfully resonant in Hawks & Reed’s fourth floor space, called The Perch.
Although forty-something drummer Ches Smith is of another generation, he has already logged a ton of credits as a sideman and a leader. His two most recent releases, both on Pyroclastic, were blockbusters: We All Break – Path of Seven Colors, captures a groundbreaking amalgam of jazz and traditional Haitian drumming and singing, and Interpret It Well features Smith’s trio of Mat Maneri and Craig Taborn, with special guest Bill Frisell. Everything Smith played was full of life and seemed essential to the music. At a couple of points, his drumming became purposefully loud, bringing welcome attention to his prodigious skills.
Discovering new talent is always a joy, and this season Jazz Shares was thrilled to have introduced to our region younger musicians like Mali Obomsawin, Allison Burik, Patricia Brennan and Beth McDonald. But wine needs to age before it peaks, and there is nothing better than watching veterans like Erik Friedlander and his bandmates share the fruits of their years spent sharpening their craft.