At this late date, jazz repertory has an impressive breadth. Thanks to a younger generation’s interests, all sorts of once-neglected artists, styles and songbooks have enjoyed their moment in the sun – think everything from Ron Horton personalizing Andrew Hill to Miguel Zenón updating plena. With so many rocks overturned already, unearthing a truly singular canon remains a victory of sorts. It’s doubly attractive when the choice transcends the novelty of mere contrivance. The real win-win is saluting a forebear who has had at least a bit of aesthetic impact on your own work. Personal resonance goes a long way when you’re tipping the hat to a hero.
You can hear those kind of historical feels all over Oscalypso, Erik Friedlander’s nod to Oscar Pettiford. The late bassist was a bop maven who spent time with everyone from Ellington to Gillespie. The 55-year cellist is a longstanding member of NYC’s downtown scene who’s made hay in contexts ranging from pensive solo recitals to raucous quintets. A few years ago Friedlander organized a band inspired by Pettiford’s work on the cello (in 1949 the bassist turned to the more petite instrument while nursing a broken arm, essentially brokering the use of pizzicato string plunking in a jazz setting). With bassist Trevor Dunn and drummer Michael Sarin goosing the action, Friedlander’s 12 originals boasted a slippery élan that marked Pettiford nuggets such as “Cable Car” and “Trioctism.” Lithe yet rambunctious, the music scampered in several directions – some pieces employed nimble flourishes, others paused to ponder a few textural ideas. They named it the Broken Arm Trio. Utterly charming.
Now that group has invited saxophonist Michael Blake to help create an addendum of sorts. Oscalypso deals in Pettiford’s own tunes, which in general have a deftly rendered logic driving their gentle swing and pop-tinged themes. It’s one of those easy-access albums, a pithy affair that bounces along and wins you over in a mere track or two. Friedlander’s foursome has a remarkable agility; their updates have oomph, but they keep Pettiford’s tunes as spry as the original recordings, which is saying a lot. It almost seems that the composer writes a breezy demeanor into several of the melodies. The word “vivacious” is antiquated for sure, but as “Cello Again” and the title track spill forward, it continuously pops into my head.
The leader picks at the strings on “Bohemia After Dark” (a Pettiford classic and jazz jewel), inviting counterpoint from everyone around him. He breaks out the bow on “Oscalypso” and builds a web that slowly woos the others to its center. Last time out, the rhythm section proved how supple they could be. Now they sound even more pliable, and wonderfully precise as well. That makes Blake in the game-changer. Like Friedlander, he’s fluent in several jazz lingos, and here the bop acuity he’s been refining for years is dispensed wisely. As the pair spend the first few seconds of “Pendulum At Falcoln’s Lair” twirling around each other, it’s easy to hear why cello and tenor are such a confluent match (ditto on the heartache of “Talampais Love Song”). When the band comes in, it’s like a West Coast Cool session has been catapulted into the future – bohemia after dark, indeed.