Overdue Ovation: Marty Ehrlich, Professor Who Performs

The master reedman reflects on a fruitful career and uncertain future

Marty Ehrlich (photo: Erika Kapin)

Scheduled to play a concert in Boston, Marty Ehrlich finds himself facing more immediate concerns. “I’m supposed to play with the Makanda Project, which does the music of Makanda Ken McIntyre,” says the 64-year-old saxophonist, bass clarinetist, flutist, and composer, speaking in early March from his Beantown lodgings. “I’m the guest artist tonight—if it happens. We’re in the middle of a huge snowstorm.”

Snow is one of the more minor obstacles that Ehrlich has seen lately. Like most musicians, he’s had to adjust to changes in the recording industry, forcing him to rethink both his compositional approach and his revenue streams. (Ehrlich’s most recent CD, Trio Exaltation, came out in May 2018.) He’s also not alone in feeling the current trends in academia: dwindling enrollment, decreased funding, strained faculty.

Ehrlich’s case, though, is more public than most. He’s a professor of jazz and contemporary music at Hampshire College, a liberal arts school in Amherst, Mass., that’s been embroiled in a high-profile financial crisis. In February, Hampshire’s trustees announced that there will be no incoming freshman class in the fall. Other austerity measures seem inevitable.

“I was in three emergency meetings last week,” Ehrlich says. “It’s a very open question what Hampshire will look like next year. At this point in time, no faculty or staff position there is a given. I will look at my options as they come along.”

The good news is that Ehrlich still has a fruitful performing career. The avant-gardist sustains several musical projects, including Trio Exaltation (with bassist John Hébert and drummer Nasheet Waits) as well as a performance of solo sax improvisations over prerecorded percussion. He recently worked at Hampshire with a quartet featuring flutist Nicole Mitchell, cellist Tomeka Reid, and bassoonist Sara Schoenbeck, and performed at the Smithsonian National Gallery of Art in a quintet that shared the bill with the avant supergroup Trio 3.

“I’m always trying things,” he says. “Looking to what directions I can go in.” That’s of a piece with his prolific four-decade career in jazz. Born May 31, 1955 in St. Paul, Minn., Ehrlich moved to Louisville when he was a year old. At 10, three years after he’d taken up the clarinet at a summer music camp, the family relocated again to St. Louis so his father, a social worker (like his mother), could complete a doctoral program at Washington University.

In high school, Ehrlich turned to the alto sax. Contrary to some reports, he never was formally affiliated with St. Louis’ Black Artists Group (BAG), though at 18 he did record with some of its members in drummer Charles “Bobo” Shaw’s Human Arts Ensemble. After that, he matriculated at Boston’s New England Conservatory.

This was where Ehrlich found his great teachers: Gunther Schuller, Ran Blake, George Russell, Jaki Byard. He also encountered the city’s jazz scene, during the last gasp of greats like Sonny Rollins and Dizzy Gillespie playing in small clubs. “I got so much information that I can’t absorb it all in this lifetime,” he says. “It was an amazing thing being in Boston then, 1973 to 1977. That school, that faculty, that city … it was a very exciting time.”

A few months after graduating, his saxophonist friend Tim Berne invited Ehrlich to share his Manhattan loft space. Moving there in January 1978, Ehrlich soon got a gig with Chico Hamilton—“one of the few times in my career that I auditioned.” Not long after, he dropped by a rehearsal of Anthony Braxton’s Creative Orchestra to visit some friends in the ensemble; he left with a membership of his own, scrambling for a passport so he could join them three days later on a European tour.

Work piled up fast. Leroy Jenkins called, followed by Muhal Richard Abrams; then Roscoe Mitchell, Wadada Leo Smith, Julius Hemphill, and Oliver Lake, all of whom became mentors; and George Russell, with whom he played 30 nights at the Village Vanguard in 1979 (and never again since). “Over the next several years I think I played in every new jazz big band in New York City,” Ehrlich says. “The focus really was on expanding things compositionally. Everybody was trying to write. I have been involved in many, many hundreds of world premieres of new music.

“A lot of my own work started in that context, but then I would take it into small groups,” he adds. “Jerome Harris [a bassist/guitarist who was also Ehrlich’s longtime roommate] and I started a quartet; I did my first trio record [1984’s The Welcome] with Pheeroan akLaff and Anthony Cox.” The followup, 1987’s Pliant Plaint, featured a quartet with tenor saxophonist Stan Strickland, a friend from NEC. It began a collaboration that lasted a decade.

The two-horn, non-chordal conception was one of two streams that Ehrlich’s music straddled—he calls it “the Traveller’s Tale context,” named for a 1989 quartet record with Strickland. The other is “the Dark Woods context,” for his flute-, clarinet-, and bass clarinet-led ensembles of the 1990s. He also continued working as a sideman for friends like Braxton, Hemphill, and Andrew Hill, with whom Ehrlich played on the pianist’s acclaimed sextet album Dusk.

Another regular collaborator is bassist Mark Dresser, who spans both contexts (and uses Ehrlich in his current septet). “Marty is a real multi-instrumentalist,” Dresser says. “He’s known for the alto sax, but he plays good tenor, good clarinet, bass clarinet, flute. Basically anything with a reed, he’ll play. Not only does he have a very soulful, emotional quality to his playing, but he has this beautiful sound.”

As the millennium dawned, Ehrlich changed course. He finally assembled his own large ensemble for 2002’s The Long View, reuniting it about 10 years later for A Trumpet in the Morning. As he’d seen earlier in his career, large ensembles were an ideal vehicle for composition, something that’s become more difficult for him with recent changes in the music industry.

“Part of my heartbreak over the end of the long-playing album is that the shape of the recording is how I composed,” he laments. “I begin to think of it as a longer arc and it helps me. Although I’ve had a few things that were more like hit singles; I have a tune called ‘Hear You Say,’ which I thought might make me millions. And you know what? It may still. Maybe Jay-Z will do his thing on it someday.”

Between the two big-band projects, he renewed his interest in chordal instruments, especially the piano, forming groups with pianists Craig Taborn and James Weidman and recording duo albums with Mike Nock and Myra Melford. He also became intrigued with the cello, working with Erik Friedlander and Hank Roberts. But it’s telling that the chordless trio format, with reed, bass, and drums (as on Trio Exaltation), has remained a touchstone all through his career.

“There are a couple reasons for that,” he says. “One is artistic: I might over-believe in interaction. It’s always been exciting the way that this music unfolds in front of the audience; they’re drawn in and we’re drawn in. The trio context is great for this. And then there’s the practical side: For every instrument you add, you have greatly increased the difficulty of touring.”

It’s good to hear that the practical side of things can yield inspiration, when it can also just as often throw up roadblocks. The reshaping of the record industry bedevils Ehrlich not just in terms of composition but financially; at one time nearly half his income came from sessions, which is no longer feasible. And the drama at Hampshire College, he acknowledges, has been consuming. “This is a very hard time,” he says.

Still, new ideas and experiments flow; opportunities present themselves. It keeps him going. “I am excited,” Ehrlich says. “It’s not an easy time for this, but I stay quite enthused. And I continue to have a good time.”

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.