Marty Ehrlich is a uniquely erudite, civilized outcat. Like outcats everywhere, he slashes and burns and lives on the edge. But his jagged abstractions and flaming trajectories take place within carefully organized forms. The opening title track, a crashing anthem, makes you think of Ornette Coleman’s quartets with Don Cherry. Ehrlich’s shrill, swooping alto saxophone and James Zollar’s tart, brash trumpet duel like musical fighter planes, high in the sky. Beneath them, cellist Hank Roberts and drummer Michael Sarin churn and plunge.
But in Ehrlich’s quartet, trilling effusions from the leader and spattering tantrums from Zollar make way for planned thematic recurrences and transitional riffs. Events are timed. Sarin’s explosive drum solo arrives on schedule.
And Coleman would not have composed an extended, formal, elegant line like “Ballade.” Ehrlich’s arrangement, with its counterpoint and evolving voicings, makes a quartet sound orchestral. Yet “Ballade” generates the wildest solos on the album. Ehrlich spews nasty funk and shards of lyricism at elastic tempos. Zollar buzzes and blusters with a plunger mute. Roberts somehow keeps his insidious twitching beat going as he improvises on top of it.
Much of this music is cinematic: comedies (“You Can Beat the Slanted Cards”) and film noir (“Walk Along the Way,” with three soloists emitting unfiltered utterances from the subconscious while Sarin’s drums stir and mutter).
It utterly transforms a quartet to substitute a cellist for the bassist. (Julius Hemphill, with Abdul Wadud, wrote the book on this format.) Roberts, pizzicato or arco or both at once, grooves in the rhythm section or joins the frontline. He sometimes bows rich backgrounds for the other soloists, and sometimes takes piercing, keening solos of his own. Roberts is the secret weapon of this session.