Marty Ehrlich

The Long View

by Robert R. Calder

12 April 2004



Something interesting can usually be predicted of Marty Ehrlich, and there’s some extremely good music here. It’s let down, for one thing, in performance, regardless that the composer’s the leader and most of the music features him as, in every good respect, musical star soloist and playing very well. It’s also let down by some much less good music, and failure of relation between the best and the at worst bordering on the banal. The notes say that in this suite of six pieces plus postlude, Maestro Ehrlich wanted to enter the realm of beauty to which belong the paintings of Oliver Jackson (not to be confused with the late much-missed drummer-dancer). Maybe he did, but he does at times get lost there. A dancer would have helped.

“Movement I” has Ehrlich on alto and Eddie Allen (trumpeter with a much earlier very respectable namesake in the same department) venturing into the upper atmosphere breathed out once by Eric Dolphy and Ted Curson, and again Charles McPherson and Lonnie Hillyer, with Mingus. Ehrlich has on this track an ensemble of brass and saxophones. It was mostly unnecessary. It comes in but it never integrates. More could have been done with less.

cover art

Marty Ehrlich

The Long View

US: 21 Oct 2003
UK: Available as import

The compositions throughout are, by and large, what used to be called “third stream”, with jazz and European concert music being the first two streams. John Lewis’s efforts at convergence tended to the over-refined, Günther Schuller’s (also long ago) I don’t really remember. What if in impecunious Mingus mode the real loving couple, Ehrlich and Allen, had tried to do most things for themselves, unaided. But the two streams here are, respectively, oil and water.

In “Movement II” of an hour-long work that might have been brilliant at forty minutes, Ehrlich is with violin, viola, cello, bass, and a pair of percussionists. Some of the writing’s of a high order, but the pace is wrong, the music is off the burner. Ehrlich’s soprano blends well with the strings, hardly, as the notes say, like “rich velvet folded around a string of fine pearls”. Sounds to me like a soprano saxophone with the above mentioned strings, at the best very good, at other times not, and overall with a want of tension.

Brass and reeds again: “Movement III” has echoes of late Ellington, complete with baritone sax contributions a la Carney. But at the relay connections between one sort of section and the different sort which follows rather stands there, rather than somehow taking the baton on the run; or just sits, and plainly nobody’s asked it to dance. The description of Mark Helias as “conductor” surely means that he holds things together, prevents mistakes—and no more—in an atmosphere where mistakes seem, alas, far too unlikely. That master bassist should have handed his little stick to somebody else to waggle, and picked up his bass and prodded, created a reviving pulse. The great Swiss pianist-teacher Edwin Fischer told his students that pauses were the most important thing, but here the music just stops and then starts again. A great deal of understandable amusement has been had over the notes marked “pensando” in some modern scores: it means think the note, don’t actually play it. But pauses should be thought, should be performed, they should connect as well as separate.

It’s the same throughout, even in “Movement IV”, with Wayne Horvitz’s piano (always interesting) Mark Dresser’s bass, and Bobby Previte’s drums completing a quartet with Ehrlich’s alto and flute.

What comes after a pause has to have meaningful relation to what went before it, even an obvious disjunction. With the segue into “Movement V”, there’s Ray Anderson’s righteous trombone and Mark Helias’s reinspiring bass. But here too something gets pasted in, despite the melodiously swingy violin of Mark Feldman (also one of the string group in “Movement II”). According to notes provided with the disc, here, “opening with a staggered blues line, the cello and violin whip up a frenzy that moves everything into a free space zone”. A dead zone, more like, and empty. Mechanical, stranded, probably heard it all before but it never meant much then either.

“Each of the six Movements is episodic”, the notes say. Too bloody true! As for “but remarkably fluid”, well, bilge-water! The Long View “draws upon the entire vernacular from which the composer has drawn his influences…”? Vernacular is the wrong word, but when I read of George Russell, Günther Schuller, “the New England Conservatory of Music, the midwestern collectives like BAG in St. Louis and the AACM in Chicago… Oliver Lake… the world influences that are so prevalent in New York’s downtown new music scene”, maybe the music didn’t have room to move.

I was taken with another infelicity in the “darkly evocative textures” of the blurb-writer’s p(r)ose. I mean the assertion that all of those inputs (and the rest of the list I can’t be bothered typing, are “cemented by Marty’s saxophone and flute work”.

Cemented? While that word doesn’t go with the “fluid”, it sums and sends up a major problem which even the composer’s amazing playing can’t resolve. The reference to “gutty blues” is, I hope, a misprint for gutsy (since where I come from “gutty”, from gutta percha, is a dialect term for rubber). I don’t need telling how much variety is here, the composer ought to have been more aware of the problems of bringing things together before he went about promiscuously adding.

I’d feel much warmer about the amazing interplay between tuba and alto early in “Movement VI”, and the stunning alto playing too, if it wasn’t for the failures in between.

If Marty Ehrlich began again with a minimum number of musicians to play all the notes, a strict time limit, and an editor, the actual very fine music might even be rescued. Otherwise, in any long view, there’s too much doing nothing here but drag the whole lot down.

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