Playing his tribute to Oscar Pettiford in the National Concert Hall this weekend is New York avant-garde jazz cellist Eric Friedlander.  

“When you cast around for a hero in the cello jazz category," says Friedlander, "there’s not a lot to pick from, but there is one great example of a guy who discovered the cello quite by accident and really fell in love with the instrument, and that's Oscar. It’s hard to imagine now how novel it was at the time to put the cello at the centre of a band.”

Having started playing the cello at the age of eight, Eric Friedlander came to improvisation in his late teens. “As I began to research and study jazz, I discovered some great players but Oscar Pettiford was always the one for me.”  The acclaimed composer and performer released his tribute album to Pettiford in 2015: “It took a long time to come around to feeling ready to do a tribute record where I was playing his music. I felt I had to get to a certain point where I could do it justice.”

Erik Friedlander

While undertaking the project, Friedlander learned a lot more about Oscar’s life. “He was a very troubled young man, sort of a difficult personality. His music is almost always sunny, optimistic or sentimental. Oscar was a charismatic kinda guy, but he was a drinker and would fly into these rages. There are stories of him having perfect pitch - but that can almost be a curse, because you hear everything out of tune and it’s just so strongly marked in your brain — so he used to rage at the sax players in the Duke Ellington Band and Woody Herman if they weren’t playing in pitch. He was a perfectionist.”

Oscar Pettiford was passionate about the instrument, even going so far as to name his son Cello and twin daughters Celest and Celina. “When I heard the record My Little Cello," says Friedlander, "which is an album put together after his death, where he is holding his young son on the cover — well, it’s such a good band, with [Charlie] Mingus on bass, Phil Urso on tenor sax, Julius Watkins on French horn - that record is really amazing.”

Pettiford died at 37 in Copenhagen, Denmark. “We never really got a chance to see an Oscar Pettiford who brought his incredible gifts with a clear head, past the drinking and everything," says Friedlander. "Dick Katz, a piano player who knew Pettiford, said he was an unhappy man. He ha a couple of dozen tunes at least that he gets credit for, but Oscar would say there a lot more that Dizzy Gillespie gets credit for that he composed. Part of the problem was that [Pettiford] couldn’t read or write music, so he needed someone to write pieces down for him.”

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According to Friedlander, a move to Europe didn't bring a change in Pettiford's fortunes: “Oscar moved to Denmark with his girlfriend and three children hoping for a new start, but it was a bittersweet part of his life. He felt he never got the kind of respect the great players like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie got. They were getting higher fees, and he was a victim of never feeling like he got what deserved. If people have gone down a bitter track in their life, it can be hard to recover from that; He had a few car accidents over there and eventually died in hospital. I think it’s sad, he has a tragedy of an unfinished story.”

On this tour, Eric is introducing new pieces, some of them based on Oscar Pettiford’s life. “I feel like there is more work to do here," he says. "I felt there was something missing from the portrayal of the pieces so I wrote some that cover the more difficult parts of this life. Some are more fun and a little edgier. I’m going to tell some stories also; try and paint the full picture of the man.” .In addition, Friedlander has revisited some of Oscar’s work: "We’re bringing out some new arrangements of his more popular pieces - La Verne’s Walk, OP Meets LT, Swinging Till the Girls Come Home and My Little Cello.”

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Like Pettiford, Eric is devoted to the cello. “I’ve been playing since I was 8. I don’t think of it as something separate. It’s such a part of my identity, it’s just always there, like my right hand.” Friedlander began his career as a session musician. “I was just playing all the time and then the focus of my career began to whittle that away and I was left with more creative projects," he says. "It was fun to be kind of a hired gun, but I think I get more out of writing. Writing is the key — it’s the key to everything.”

He's has worked with a variety of eclectic artists, from John Zorn to Courtney Love: “It’s just fun to be brought in and to work with somebody who brings a lot to the table.” Constantly playing or writing, Eric finds his hometown of New York offers a vibrant community. “It’s very active," he says, "everybody is kicking each other's butt all the time — it’s exciting and challenging but I don’t know where [inspiration] comes from, I just know it’s my job to find it! It’s my job not to wait for inspiration, but to get busy searching for it and discovering, listening to and hearing people play.”

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After this Eric has a few recording projects and a tour with his other trio Black Phoebe. He admits it’s difficult in the current industry to gain attention for the work. “There is so much being produced,  because of the reasonableness of the technology , it’s very democratic, you know everybody can make a record so it’s hard to get attention. We’re going through a really tough period where it’s hard to get reasonable fees. To create a record can cost $10 — $15000 and we’re just not seeing the money coming back from that so people are making shorter records. They’re not printing CD’s. People are coming up with different ways of presenting music, it just very difficult to earn back the money. You’re reliant on people like publicists to help but even that industry is suffering because the outlets that you would usually try to get their attention from don’t even like carry jazz reviewers any more.”

Despite the challenges the industry offers to the modern jazz musician, Eric Friedlander feels that there is still an appetite out there for music that pushes boundaries. “There’s no one response," he says, "Europe is like everywhere else - (there are) so many pockets of Intellectual curiosity. Cologne in Germany is home to a lot of great musicians, the audience there is very challenging. In Amsterdam, it’s very cosmopolitan. You go to other places, smaller places outside of bigger cities and you get a very enthusiastic response cos they’re hungry for new sounds and new ways of hearing things.”

Erik Friedlander's Oscalypso: The Music of Oscar Pettiford is at the National Concert Hall, Dublin, on Friday 3rd & Saturday 4th February @ 7.30pm - info and booking here.