Erik Friedlander’s finger-plucked cello sounds like a clumsy guitar—as simple and unglossed as a brown-bag lunch. On Broken Arm Trio, that folksiness becomes outright folk music, a cabinet of wonders built alongside the fierce jazz rhythm section of bassist Trevor Dunn and drummer Mike Sarin. The trio was inspired by Oscar Pettiford’s cello work—the late bassist took up the instrument after breaking his arm—but Friedlander avoids Pettiford’s pure-blooded bebop almost entirely, instead seizing on folk-based melodies and changes from several different traditions. “Pearls” is very Russian in its dark moans; other tracks are American to the core (“Easy” is a sad cowboy tune, “Big Shoes” a Mississippi Delta slow-drag). Common ground arises from Friedlander’s rhythmic-yet-relaxed melodic treatment, which also sounds slightly primitive due to the thick strings, his love of pitch bends, and the peculiar twang he places on each note. Ironically, that apparent crudeness doesn’t mar his virtuosity, but grants it a homely warmth, like Ella Jenkins’s children’s sing-alongs.
It also diverts attention from the rhythm section’s alchemy. Even in this sparse setting, Dunn’s bass is subtle, covered by another, higher-pitched pizzicato instrument. That doesn’t undo his allure: On the world-weary “Hop Skip,” he takes the most emotionally potent solo. Sarin is pushed forward, highlighting his swing and sensational fills (particularly on “Cake”), but like Dunn, he’s hiding considerable musicality: It’s easy to overlook the colors he provides “Hop Skip” via shifting cymbals. Listening to the disc as if Sarin were the leader yields many such surprises.
Friedlander plays an unconventional jazz instrument and takes an unconventional jazz approach. But Broken Arm Trio, a band and album that’s at least as beholden to Alan Lomax as to Charlie Parker, is stunning—both in what it does and how well they do it. This quirky fusion deserves major attention.