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Erik Friedlander's Topaz
After hearing NYC cellist Erik Friedlander's Topaz, his debut recording as a bandleader, one wouldn't guess that Prince, Earth, Wind & Fire, or Herbie Hancock's Headhunters are the album's primary influences. But along with Miles Davis and Henry Mancini, those are precisely the big names the artist cites as "inspirations" for the disc. Thankfully, Friedlander's groovy record collection doesn't dominate his performance.

However rhythmically wrought, the cellist's contemporary jazz concept is far too compositionally advanced to be considered groove- or funk-bound. The arrangements actually seem to echo Duke Ellington's refined use of orchestral color, allowing each instrument -- cello, electric bass (Stomu Takeishi), alto sax (Andy Laster), percussion (Satoshi Takeishi) -- to direct the melodic trajectory of a tune at any given time.

Combined with a seamless yet unpredictable harmonic framework and tightly honed improvised sections, Friedlander's original works rank on the level of jazz sophisticates like Dave Douglas, John Zorn, or Mark Dresser. His unusual and memorable interpretations of "New Thing" pioneer Eric Dolphy's "Hat and Beard" and "Something Sweet, Something Tender" show why the classically trained cellist is in demand among New York's downtown forward-thinkers: He can apply his signature sound to a piece of music, even radically transform it, without compromising either the integrity of the tune or his own voice. Maybe he's got the groove after all.

-- Sam Prestianni

Erik Friedlander's Topaz performs on Wednesday, March 31, at 8 p.m. at Venue 9, 252 Ninth St. (at Folsom), S.F. Tickets are $6-10; call 289-2000.

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