Marty Ehrlich’s Delicate Balance

photo by Russell Fine

As mentioned, i’m adding old work to this blog so it doesn’t get lost in the ether. this 1990 profile of Marty Ehrlich was for Musician magazine. This is before he formed his Dark Woods Ensemble and Rites Quartet and Large Ensemble and Trio Exaltation and innumerable duets and quartets with the members of his extended cohort. Ehrlich kicks off a residency at The Stone this week, May 4-7. Good place to catch him in action. Good place to see if he can deliver “the feeling that what you’re doing has never happened before.” I’m thinking he can and will.

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“Swing is not an anachronism,” says Marty Ehrlich. “But remember, there are many many different ways to swing.” 

The 34-year old reed player should know, he uses about a dozen of them. Parts of Ehrlich’s language are cornerstones of the jazz vernacular; others are very much his own creation. Blended together on his latest album, Traveler’s Tale, a follow-up to the sublime Pliant Plaint, they reroute your expectations while cleverly delivering pleasure and intrigue. 

At the time when the jazz scene is somewhat compartmentalized – acoustic classicism, outfunk dutiful repertory, spontaneous improv – Ehrlich comes off as a guy who puts the big picture in focus. His quartet, which includes saxophonist Stan Strickland, bassist Lindsay Horner, and percussionist Bobby Previte, has been working Ehrlich’s unique combinations for a while now, but in the past year they’ve bumped up their eloquence. 

“Well, it’s nice that it’s being recognized a bit,” he says sitting at a sidewalk cafe table on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. “These days I do feel that I have enough experience with different musics to bring about my strongest stuff. I hate playing in any one style – you know, now I’m going to swing, now pretty, now noisy. That doesn’t seem to be the point.”

Ehrlich respects and has first-hand experience with those various styles. Gleaning the music’s most useful components – the exuberance of free jazz blowing, the romantic expression of a 1940s ballad, the gritty thrill of a R&B stomp, the structural integrity of the conservatory – he delivers the kind of insights that explain their interrelationship. There is nothing glib about their deployment; Ehrlich’s not a trendy dude or a guy who milks irony from traditional references. His music is earnest, and the power of its sincerity knocks you back a step or two.

“I’d rather not worry about whether I’m being consciously traditional or consciously avant-garde,” he says. “I have a lot of influences, and my biggest enemy would be the restriction of language. Over the years I’ve found myself playing devil’s advocate: the wild guy in the more traditional groups, and the traditional guy in the avant-garde situations.”

His resume helps explain his point of view. For the last decade Ehrlich’s been one of the music’s most well regarded players, a staple in the ensembles of Muhal Richard Abrams and Anthony Davis, and a key member of John Carter’s group. He functions differently within each, and, because he plays six different instruments – alto and tenor sax, clarinet and bass clarinet, flute and alto flute – he commands a broad total palette as well. 

“I’m a good session player – I think that’s why those kinds of composers use me. I was under pressure from the beginning to develop an individual voice, and they realize that.”

The beginning was St Louis, where Ehrlich was a high school band member with a yen for literature. His exchange of ideas with the poet Malinke Elliott hooked him up with members of the Black Artists Group, an improvising collective with decidedly open methods of operation. Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake and Hamiet Bluiett were all participants, and Ehrlich picked up pointers. “I don’t remember playing many compositions; extending into sound what was what was going on,” he recalls. “We would spend afternoons just playing percussion and saxes in the park. In the same way that there’s a pressure to conform in your playing these days, there was pressure not to conform in St Louis. When I started improvising I was drawn to high energy players John Gilmore, Pharaoh Sanders; I wanted to get the same kind of visceral sound, but obviously that’s impossible at the age of 16.”

Turns out he got something more precious: an open mind. Studies at Boston’s New England Conservatory (“immeasurably important seeing how people like Jaki Byard and George Russell put their music together”) introduced him to a bop-smitten world. Some musicians go to school and become academic snobs, but Ehrlich’s previous experience gave him a better sense of balance. “One can make an argument that bop has technically involved aspects that separates it from those who can’t play,” he offers, “but that doesn’t invalidate other approaches to music.” 

With some of those other approaches in his horns, he took off to New York and soon found his place in the scene, working with elders Anthony Braxton, Leroy Jenkins and Wadada Leo Smith, among others. Better, he found like-minded collaborators to grow with. An early-80s duet record with bassist John Lindberg proves that Ehrlich’s improvs could be fascinating even in a bare-bones setting. “That’s one of the most important aspects of development,” he says. “You’ve got to have people to bounce ideas off of.”

By 1986 and The Welcome, his first record as a leader, he had a valise full of provocative compositions and decidedly personal view on the way they should be played.

“Improvising is all about the moment and self-revelation,” he suggests. “I often think of Ornette’s solos on The Shape of Jazz To Come. There’s nothing pre-arranged, but they’re ideal. In school they talk about a piece where you can’t take any notes out. That’s what happens in those solos, and that’s what I strive for. I would much rather risk a solo not getting off the ground than resorting to licks. I’m turned off by players who have a certain thing that they do no matter what. Every grouping of musicians should imply some adjustments in one’s playing. Every piece sets up its own language.”

That’s a fair critique of what happens when Ehrlich’s quartet takes the stand. Strickland, a Boston musician who should be better known, also plays a handful of woodwinds. “We share a strong lyrical sense, and phrase well together, too. The band is kind of defined by that.” But the action comes from all four musicians playing the hand(s) dealt by the leader’s tunes. After everyone shares the theme statement, there might be a bass/flute passages or a solo tenor sax statement or a investigatory drum foray, or horn swoops or… 

“Booker Little said ‘the more dissonance, the more emotion.’ Which doesn’t mean that you always go for the extremes. As an artist you should have some kind of intuition as to where the balance lies. That’s why the transitions are crucial; they have a job to accomplish. When the band is familiar with the elements at hand, we can change them at will.”

Despite his background, Ehrlich never bought into the reverse snobbery that sometimes surrounds the avant-garde. His groups can bounce and swing. “There are lots of ways more radical than just finding the language that’s ‘cutting edge’.’ I’m more interested in how player’s interact. The great improvisers have the ability to transform information, to take the littlest thing and run. At this point I can hear within 15 seconds whether someone can improvise or not, be it over ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ changes or balloons on guitar strings.”

“It’s great when players push themselves not to be pat, to get past gestures that sort of imply emotion and get to the emotion itself. That may mean playing simply and quietly rather than more intensely. On the other hand, I never wanted to feel that I can’t use jagged, vocalized ways of playing because they’re passé, or worn out. I love the raw sound.”

Given the conservative tinge of the jazz that has flourished for the last several years, Ehrlich’s songbook sounds not only well-versed, but stubbornly modern. Other players may claim to be historically cognizant, but the low-key woodwind player knows chapter and verse from more than one book, and holds none of them as the final word.

“There’s not much that shocks anymore,” he shakes his head, “so you try to come up with stuff that will spontaneously combust onstage – the feeling that what you’re doing has never happened before. People pick up on that. And it’s not important if the vehicle getting you there is a simple blues or just sounds.”

Marty Ehrlich is in residency at The Stone, May 4-7

One response to “Marty Ehrlich’s Delicate Balance

  1. Mr. Macnie — Just found your blog and happy to have done so. The “Follow” widget in the lower left of the page seems to be a signup for email and I get quite enough of that. Can I subscribe via RSS? If not, email’s fine.

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