Broken Arm Trio features music inspired by virtuoso bassist Oscar Pettiford and legendary pianist/composer Herbie Nichols. However, from the album opener, “Spinning Plates”, with its fluttering pizzicato cello arpeggios, pulsating bass, and “hot” drum fills, it’s clear that this music owes just as much if not more to Django Reinhardt and European folk music.
Traditional Continental music is nothing new for cellist Erik Friedlander, the composer of all 12 songs on Broken Arm Trio. In his diverse discography, Friedlander has touched many times, albeit in genre-bending ways, on Romani and Jewish musics. His experimental work with John Zorn, in particular, stands out in this way. Friendlander’s avant garde solo meanderings with the Zorn-conducted Masada String Trio always seemed to ooze a bohemian quality prevalent in Stephane Grappelli’s work with the Hot Club of France. And Friendlander’s recent commission for Zorn’s Aleph-Bet Sound Project at the Contemporary Jewish Museum of San Francisco embodies not only Jewish liturgical forms, but also a kind of aural kabbalah.
So it’s no surprise that European folk music runs through Broken Arm Trio. What is a surprise is that Friendlander’s bandmates, drummer Mike Sarin and bassist Trevor Dunn, are voluntarily along for the ride. Who knew these guys could play so quietly? (And not in a bad way!) Sarin, who has long provided the churning rhythm for Ben Allison’s superb post-bop ensembles, has never been one to shy away from a rocking backbeat. And Dunn, who co-founded the spaz metal band Mr. Bungle and is currently keeping the lows meteorically low in equally spazzy Fantomas, has a reputation for turning the volume up to 11 and keeping it there.
Despite such shred-worthy backgrounds, Sarin and Dunn sound completely at home supporting Friedlander’s gentle pizzicato poetry. On “Pearls”, which sounds like the Beatles’ “Yesterday” after it’s taken a trip through Jerusalem, Sarin keeps time by banging lightly on his cymbal stands and cymbals as if they were castanets and Dunn provides a rolling funereal bass line. Friedlander’s ethereal harmonic minor melody is just icing on the kiddush cake. “Big Shoes” finds both Sarin and Dunn displaying a little virtuosity of their own. Sarin’s drum lines dance around the beat, lacing it with spontaneous hits and crashes. Meanwhile, Dunn’s noise-metal roots come shining through, with shimmering atonal bass fills and growling low-end grooves.
Friedlander and company do rock out on Broken Arm Trio, revealing just the tip of that enormously noisy, Zorn-esque iceberg that you can sense is vibrating below the surface. On “Jim Zipper”, each member of the trio spends the better part of a minute wailing away on his respective axe. While Sarin and Dunn prove more than adequate musical sparing partners for Friedlander, it’s only when they cut back that Friedlander truly shines. Broken Arm Trio reaches its mighty apex on “Buffalo”, a minute-long cello composition near the album’s end, which showcases Friedlander at his most cantorial. His pizzicato lines resemble the haunting chanting of a Sephardic mourning service and coax the listener into a shared shiva.
At this point, you may be thinking, why has a man who has earned a reputation as a first-rate cellist using the bow decided to put his main weapon of choice in storage and, instead, resort to rudimentary plucking? In 1949, with his arm in a sling after a baseball injury, Pettiford picked up the cello and proceeded to tune it and play it (marvelously, I might add) like a jazz bass. Pettiford then went on to record several albums on cello, including more than a few records featuring his staple “Jack the Bear”.
As an ode to Pettiford, Friedlander tunes and plays his cello like a jazz bass on the bulk of Broken Arm Trio. Unfortunately, that’s where any comparisons end between Broken Arm Trio and the work of the bass legend. Pettiford’s playing was and still is the epitome of jazz: walking basslines that swing something nasty and economical solos that exude soul and speak volumes (literally, as you could often hear Pettiford singing over his solos). Any similarity between Broken Arm Trio and the work of the harmonically adventuresome (and much underappreciated) Nichols is also tenuous and superficial at best. Instead, Broken Arm Trio clearly features the work of three musicians who, while tremendously adept at playing jazz, are snuggly rooted in the rock and European classical and folk idioms.
So, if you’re looking for a bit of Oscar and a touch of Herbie, you may be disappointed. However, if you’re open to a dash of Django and an album chock full of thoughtful, playful, and exciting tunes, you’ll be more than satisfied with Broken Arm Trio.