Erik Friedlander

Erik Friedlander (Angelo Merendino / May 19, 2014)

A highly regarded fellow musician once advised cellist Erik Friedlander to always keep the audience guessing. Friedlander's listeners have grown accustomed his eclectic stylistic zigs and zags, so much so that the only way Friedlander could really surprise them is by not surprising them.

The New York-based Friedlander has moved deftly from downtown collaborations with the likes of John Zorn and Marc Ribot, to solo projects that hint at ambient music, minimalism and Americana, scoring films, providing string accompaniment for indie rock's the Mountain Goats, as well as working with such diverse singers as Courtney Love and Mike Patton. Friedlander also leads the jazz-inflected group Bonebridge.

The cellist and composer, who is the son of legendary American photographer Lee Friedlander, will perform in New Haven several times this month. One show, as part of the opening of the International Festival of Arts and Ideas, will feature material from his 2007 record, "Block Ice and Propane," which was inspired by his summer boyhood trips in the family RV, during which his father shot photos of the American West. (Some of the music had its earliest public performances in New Haven years ago when Friedlander was putting the finishing touches on the pieces.)

Friedlander, who spoke to CTNow in May, will also perform with the Oscar Pettiford Project, a quartet with sax, bass, and drums, showcasing the music of innovative jazz bassist and cellist Oscar Pettiford. It will be the first performance by the group outside of New York City. The June 12 performance is in conjunction with the exhibit Jazz Lives: The Photographs of Lee Friedlander and Milt Hinton, which is up at the Yale University Art Gallery until early September.

Pettiford played bass with Duke Ellington and then with Woody Herman's big band. An arm injury sidelined the bassist and got him messing around with the cello. Pettiford, who tuned the cello like a bass, has long been an influence on Friedlander. He "played the cello like a bass player," says Friedlander.

"If you play saxophone you go back to the jazz history, the jazz legends, you have countless models to accept or reject, but for a cello player there's not so many. I actually have been inspired by [Pettiford's] playing for years." says Friedlander. "This is my most blatant tribute to him, where we're playing his music."

Meanwhile, his group Bonebridge just released its second record, "Nighthawks," which was inspired loosely by the work of the American painter Edward Hopper. That gives you a sense of Friedlander's wide range and productivity. It's not that Friedlander works exclusively from a kind of visual inspiration for his music, but, using the language of a photographer, the cellist says lately he has begun there.

"I've started making these mood books of visuals that I feel are in the atmosphere," says Friedlander. "It's all about discovering what's in the frame and what's not in the frame for a particular project. I do rely sometimes on a visual element. It's also just kind of finding the mood and finding the unifying theme of what I'm writing. It's all about self-discovery."

For the most recent Bonebridge project, for instance, the Hopper connection emerged as Friedlander composed, sometimes by candlelight, during the blackouts following Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

"It was very interesting just working without power — just how dark it was at night," he says. "It kind of hit me afterward. It was kind of lonely, and the solitude of it reminded me [of Hopper's iconic 'Nighthawks.']"

Friedlander keeps coming back to solitude. As a cellist who performs solo, he's spoken about the existential nature of traveling around alone, taking the stage by himself, occupying hotel rooms in strange cities with no entourage. In returning to perform portions of "Block Ice and Propane," his 2007 solo record made with overdubs and effects, Friedlander says that, in addition to his childhood memories of family travel, the mood for that album was conjured by pieces of American fiction and poetry that he brought to the sessions, as the pieces, some of which were improvised in the studio, were recorded.

The resulting album was by turns soothing, with hints of folk guitar, brooding, abstract and propulsive, interspersed with abrasive fragments and moody atonal snapshots. Jazzy rhythmic figures undergird some of the tracks, evoking Charles Mingus, while elsewhere a kind of spare desert atmosphere emerges. "Block Ice and Propane," having been featured on NPR and elsewhere, is perhaps Friedlander's best-known work, and it's maybe fitting that the album is possibly his most autobiographical, establishing ties to his father's photographs, and to a broad, independent and occasionally restless American aesthetic that the cellist's career embodies.

ERIK FRIEDLANDER performs with the Oscar Pettiford Project (Friedlander, cello; Michael Blake, saxophone; Michael Sarin, drums; Chris Tordini, bass) on June 12 at 5:30 p.m. at the Yale University Art Gallery, 1111 Chapel St., New Haven. Information: 203-432-0600 and artgallery.yale.edu. Free.

Friedlander also performs "Block Ice and Propane" (with projections of his father's photos and road films by Bill Morrison) Saturday, June 14, at 1 p.m. at Iseman Theater, 1156 Chapel St., as a part of the International Festival of Arts and Ideas. Tickets start at $35. Friedlander also performs "Block Ice and Propane" at the same venue as a part of the Festival Gala Kick-Off on June 13. Information: artidea.org.