A Better Fate-- Eric Erhardt

Erhardt's debut CD has been a long time coming, but it was worth the wait. The veteran saxophonist, clarinetist, and flutist has played with many small ensembles and big bands during his over 20-year career, as well as backing theatrical productions and pop artists. He has also taught music both privately and in public schools. Originally from Philadelphia, but now residing in Boulder, CO., Erhardt brought into a New Jersey recording studio an inspired group of New York-based musicians to perform his well-crafted, challenging, and stimulating compositions and arrangements. Erhardt credits his co-producers Felipe Salles and Dan Willis, and one of his teachers, Dave Liebman, with providing valuable input and feedback for this project. Joining Erhardt on A Better Fate are Russ Johnson on trumpet and flugelhorn, Sebastian Noelle on guitar, Nick Paul on piano, Linda Oh on bass, Mike Davis on drums, James Shipp on percussion, and Willis on two tracks playing soprano or oboe.

Baião and Maracatu rhythms enliven the absorbing "Little Rittle," which for the bridge Erhardt borrowed from Joe Henderson's "Inner Urge." Erhardt's propulsive tenor solo reveals his individual sound and creativity. Noelle's insistent guitar solo is in contrast to pianist Paul's more pensive one. Both the initial theme reading and the reprise, with Noelle's lines weaving in and out of Erhardt and trumpeter Johnson's unison motifs, are bracing and captivating. On "Ambivalence," Erhardt's clarinet and Johnson's trumpet blend with complementary flair for the soundly constructed, variegated theme. The improvisations by Paul, Johnson, Erhardt, and bassist Oh explore the essentials of the tune with deep understanding and focused clarity. The title piece, "A Better Fate," is influenced in part by Pat Metheny's "Third Wind." The churning, tense opening leads to a compelling tenor/trumpet theme exposition that is bolstered by Oh's superlative commentary. Erhardt, Noelle, and Johnson develop successive solos that are slashing and unrelenting.

The alluring main melody of "Powwow Now" is derived from a Navajo corn-grinding song, and is enhanced by a persistent piano ostinato. Erhardt patiently and confidently builds his tenor solo to a booting climax, while Willis's soprano wails heatedly during his turn. Noelle's glistening and hearty improv, comparable to Metheny or Mike Stern at their most expressive, precedes the revisit of the fresh and very likable theme. A guitar and bass ostinato frames "Ten Years," with Erhardt and Johnson sharing the robust head. Noelle impresses again with a solo of soaring emotion, and the trumpeter's passionate improv extends the prevailing intense atmosphere. Paul's exploration emphasizes the modal nature of the tune, as does Erhardt's searching tenor statement. The theme is breathtaking in its return, as the harmonies and textures can be even better appreciated now that the journey is being persuasively completed. "Dance Afar" features just Erhardt's tenor with the rhythm section. The intriguing ballad is made more so by Oh's lucid, never-flagging solo, Paul's sparse but distinctive comping and soloing, and Davis's receptive drum work. Erhardt's own solo in the cleanup spot is mature, polished, and most importantly, moving. This quartet performance is both intimate and inviting.

"Not Like Before" is derived from the old warhorse "Just Friends," and is given an arrangement based on the big band writing of Kenny Wheeler. Erhardt's appealingly woody clarinet plays the undulating melody with spiky accompaniment by Johnson, Paul, and Oh. The work then takes on a somewhat more languid tone, with streamlined clarinet/trumpet unison passages leading to transfixing solos by Erhardt and Johnson's flugelhorn. A new, unexpected variation then changes the mood entirely, giving way to Noelle's engaging rumination. Then we are brought full circle to the beginning of this fascinating, most ambitious arrangement. The intricate, through-composed head of "Tyler Park" is unfolded by Erhardt's tenor and Willis's soprano, with the vigorous support of Paul, Oh, and Davis. Willis shines with a solo that displays great technical agility while still remaining fully communicative. Erhardt and Paul succeed him with solos of equal eloquence. The leader and Willis then replay the theme in animated style, both before and after a forceful outing by percussionist Shipp. Just like the others on this rewarding CD, this concluding arrangement never stops giving in its abundant generosity of spirit.

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Scott Albin