The fault line in jazz, historically, has been between “mainstream” playing—whatever that meant at any given moment in the music’s history—and playing that strayed “out” beyond the harmonic or rhythmic norm. At one time, Basie was mainstream and the bebop of Charlie Parker was “out”. Later, bebop became the norm, and the likes of Ornette Coleman were “out cats”.
Today, happily, the line is blurred. But somehow, it still pertains as well. When critics and musicians get into little jazz tiffs, it’s rare that the rub doesn’t somehow cycle back to an old/new, in/out split. Too often, musicians get caught in the cracks of this split.
Ray Anderson is a good example as any. Anderson has roots in the progressive side of jazz—his first key gig was with Anthony Braxton, and he came up associated with the AACM in Chicago. Yet in practice, Anderson revels in many of the down-home elements of jazz trombone, facile with funk and New Orleans styles and with a gift for melody. He has probably played on as many blues or soul recordings as he has avant-garde jazz dates. And his playing in recent years has been a fair summary of it all. He should be better known.
It makes sense that Anderson is leading a band with Marty Ehrlich. Ehrlich plays equally beyond category, with apprenticeships with Muhal Richard Abrams and Anthony Braxton, but also rich associations in klezmer jazz, chamber jazz, and cerebral downtown music. Ehrlich’s sound on saxophone and clarinet is often the opposite of Anderson’s blowzy party tone; he usually sounds thoughtful or even studied. Yet both have a flair for variation. These are players who like to move across styles with impunity.
Hear You Say catches the Anderson-Ehrlich Quartet live, driven by the rhythm section of Brad Jones on bass and Matt Wilson on drums. Wilson, as always, plays with an alert and lively presence that keeps the band on its toes. The stars, however, are the leaders, whose voices are drenched in flavor throughout. “Hot Crab Pot”, by Anderson, has a bebop melody statement, but the solos by each horn lurch into fresher, different territory. Anderson solos freely over a grooving accompaniment that swings yet allows the trombone a ton of room for growling and free movement. When Ehrlich enters on alto sax, however, the time breaks down into fragments. Wilson begins playing a cluttered kind of ragged time, with Jones accompanying without any natural walking pulse. Ehrlich solos entirely outside any chord changes, focusing on texture and tone more than harmony, and when the swing eventually returns, Ehrlich remains outside the tune, playing with a luxurious freedom.
But that one tune hardly pegs this group. “My Wish” is a ballad that finds Ehrlich keening the melody on soprano while Anderson plays a fluttering improvised harmony. The solos are reasonably inside the harmony. But then “The Lion’s Tanz” opens with an alto/trombone duet that is wildly free, with both players pulling out all stops—Anderson grunts and squiggles and uses a mute, while Ehrlich plays multiphonics, squeals, and blurts. When the melody comes, it has a good amount of the circus in it, followed by an avalanche of collective improvisation. “The Git Go” has effortless groove, but the written tune is all fancy footwork in the post-bop vein, with clarinet and trombone dodging about each other with intellectual brilliance. These compositions, like Ehrlich and Anderson themselves, cannot be pegged to a single feeling.
Several of the tunes here are straight-up funky, with a groove both spare and in-the-pocket. “Hear You Say” is ragged funk, inspiring a crazy trombone solo of rhythmic blurts and sputters that leads into a muscular solo for Jones. Fun. And “Alligatory Rhumba” is just that—a cool, dissonant riff that rides over a Latin groove. But then the whole thing shifts into driving swing, then into a pretty floating melody, then back to the syncopation. Anderson and Ehrlich trade solo statements back and forth, swatting the ball over the net like Borg and Connors, Sampras and Agassi. Double fun.
The longest track on Hear You Say is “Portrait of Leroy Jenkins”, a tune for the great free violinist who died in 2007. It is the most complex and compelling composition on the recording, and it does the most to suggest the serious possibilities of this quartet. It contains dramatic unaccompanied solo sections, compelling group interaction, and pensive zones of textural playing that take full advantage of each player’s strengths.
“Jenkins” suggests how great a band like this could be if it had the chance to rehearse, perform and record more frequently. Would it were so.