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Marty Ehrlich: The Long View

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The Long View is a seven-movement suite inspired by the paintings of Oliver Jackson. It’s abstraction upon abstraction, as reedist Marty Ehrlich attempts to create the sonic equivalent of Jackson’s abstract visual images-but the art of music is already inherently abstract. In fact the two paintings in the liner foldout are complex, highly detailed, very “active” with black lines, yet shaded, distantly moody. Much of this description could apply to Ehrlich’s suite, too-it’s musical abstract impressionism, with ever-changing textures and momentum. Fast, slow and static events follow one on another or occur simultaneously, clashing or concurring; no element is extended very long.

How can a composer create unity and character out of such discontinuity? For one thing, with sound: different ensembles, continually recombining into smaller units, play different movements. So there are duo, quartet, septet and big-band movements; the second movement even has a string trio, alternating with quiet percussion. The Long View is not exactly easy listening, yet there is much to enjoy in the multiplying musical events. Thematic recall and variation unify the fifth movement via a fetching tenor sax-trombone blues phrase. The first movement is especially broken, with accelerando and deaccelerandos, quiet crescendos and decrescendos and free tenor and trumpet chases. The sixth movement bumps from wild collective improvisations to alto, tuba (Marcus Rojas) and drums (Pheeroan AkLaff) passages worthy of Henry Threadgill. Throughout the disc Ehrlich is the chief unifying element, playing many solo passages or leading ensembles with big, pure sounds on alto, tenor and soprano saxes and even flute. His mates are a New York underground who’s who, among whom trombonist Ray Anderson and trumpeter Eddie Allen, especially, use expressive ingenuity to make the most of their limited roles.

The Long View is a rare document of Ehrlich as a large-ensemble composer. He’s better known as an improviser, as in Line on Love, a quartet date with pianist Craig Taborn, bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Billy Drummond. It’s a showcase for Ehrlich, mainly on alto sax, with eight original songs, mainly in standard song forms with one-chord and changes-based strains. There is a bluesy “St. Louis Summer” over a funky bass-drums vamp, and on “Turn Circle and Spin” he plays some hard-hitting lines, harsh intervals, sheets of sound and rough-edged phrases. There is little of this aggression in the rest of the set. “Hymn” is a lyrical ballad that in his calm movement and pure, clean sound recalls Joseph Jarman’s serene pieces. He’s essentially a lyric artist who likes thematic improvisation methods: “Julian’s Theme” has an especially well-unified solo. He plays bass clarinet on the ballad “Solace” and the vague “The Git Go.”

Ehrlich’s style is an attractive variation of St. Louis/Chicago free-music iconoclasts. The weaknesses are that, for all his mastery, his melodies are often not inspired, and the very lack of eccentricity that makes him a valuable interpreter with many other leaders also makes him a less distinctive soloist on his own. It’s always a pleasure to hear Taborn, for he is quite an empathetic accompanist. He expands the ballads “Line on Love” into a rhapsody and plays bright exchanges with Ehrlich on “Solace” before another rhapsodic piano solo. The dissonances of his excellent work with Roscoe Mitchell are absent here, as Taborn creates good, organic solos from motivic material. Formanek may have felt restrained by the settings, for his two bass solos pack very busy lines into small spaces, and Drummond is restrained throughout the album.