Multi-woodwindist-composer Marty Ehrlich recorded his 26th leader date, Trio Exaltation (Clean Feed), last year in Lisbon with bassist John Hébert and drummer Nasheet Waits, a working unit for several years. Throughout the 10-piece recital, comprising nine Ehrlich originals and a stirring interpretation of Andrew Hill’s “Dusk,” the members apply their virtuosic skills toward triological flow with a melodic orientation, sustaining equipoise between compositional and improvisational imperatives. Not least among the recording’s pleasures is its intense sonic presence—Waits’ sound-painting on each component of his drumkit is captured in full clarity, as is Hébert’s uncanny ability to thrust and parry in any environment. It’s sure to be on this writer’s top-ten list for 2018.
The following has been edited for length and clarity.
How did this trio come to be?
My previous recording, A Trumpet In The Morning (New World), involved 26 musicians. It documented 15 years of my jazz orchestra music. I conducted, but other than a few parts, I didn’t play. This time, I decided to go to a trio format, and immediately thought of Nasheet and John, with whom I played almost 20 years ago with the Andrew Hill Sextet. Both have a 360-degree approach, and you can write for John like another horn, with the way he expresses figures and melodies on the bass. Most of my recordings have had a second horn—my Rites Quartet with trumpet; Traveller’s Tales with another saxophone; the Dark Woods Ensemble with a clarinet—or a piano. It’s always a collective approach, with an interest in ideas flying around the circle; I don’t like the hierarchy of horn soloists with rhythm section.
Would you describe Andrew Hill as a mentor figure?
I like to give credit to my teachers at the New England Conservatory from 1973 to 77: George Russell, Jaki Byard, Gunther Schuller, Ran Blake, Joe Allard and Joe Maneri. Then I moved to New York at a fairly young age, and began to work with a lot of people, like Julius Hemphill, with whom I never took a private lesson. I’ve always worked with people focused on creating their own context, largely through a strong interest in composition. I like to call them stubborn individualists. That includes long tenures with Julius, Muhal Richard Abrams, Anthony Davis, John Carter, Bobby Previte—the list goes on. I worked hard since I was quite young to have skills to handle the music on many levels when I get called. I’m focused on bringing other people’s music to life, finding out the core of their expressive intent, their methodologies, what strategies will work, what type of soul they’re aiming for. Out of my 130 to 140 recordings, the only one on which I’ve played the American Songbook is with the Anthony Braxton Quartet, when he played piano.
I worked off and on with Andrew for four or five years, covering the Dolphy instrumentation—alto sax, bass clarinet and occasionally flute—from Point Of Departure, his most famous recording. Andrew wanted you to be spontaneous and interactive with his compositions and his playing; he wanted you because you didn’t repeat yourself, didn’t have a set solo style.
How have those experiences impacted your original music?
I enjoy the balance of doing other people’s music, as well as my own. It’s a nice feedback loop. One thing that attracted me to the composers I played with is that they looked backwards and imagined forwards—they viewed the history of African-American culture and creativity as not a straight line. Sometimes they used vernacular elements, other times they wrote music that didn’t imply any immediate reference. That has worked for me. I continue to write variations on blues form and on blues language. Sometimes, I set up situations to push myself away from those things. It’s a large field of creativity.
You lived in St. Louis at just the right time to encounter both the institutional and aesthetic ethos of the Black Artists Group.
When I came on the scene, I worked under the rubric of the Human Arts Ensemble, with many members of the Black Artists Group. And yes, the ethos of that collective inspires me deeply. Even now, some of my best friends in New York are ones I made in St. Louis. Marvin Horn, who I played with in St. Louis, helped me get my first gig in New York with Chico Hamilton. Then Anthony Braxton hired me, and, through that, I began to work with the full range of the AACM performers. I think Wadada Leo Smith recommended me to Leroy Jenkins for his Mixed Quintet. Then I got a phone call from Muhal, and then Roscoe Mitchell.
You just turned 63. Can you discern common threads that connect the highly individualistic musicians of your generational peer group?
Number one is the tradition that you develop and stand up for your own voice. I think we all felt that, as improvisers, imitation is not the most sincere form of flattery. I stood next to some of my musical idols at a very young age. What are you going to do when you’re sitting right next to that person? Also, we took ensemble playing really seriously—not just being able to play in a small group, but having interpretive skills with scores and parts, to understand the way people organize music. I wanted to be versatile with the entire history of the music; not mastery, but be able to handle a wide range of contexts.
We focused on multi-arts presentations: working with dance companies, working with theater companies, working with film, working with poets. I was involved in Anthony Davis’ Malcolm X opera for seven years. Then I toured for five years with the Bill T. Jones-Arnie Zane dance company as a member of the Julius Hemphill Sextet. I myself have tried to develop works that involve more than one medium, like The Long View (Enja), which was a collaboration with the painter Oliver Jackson, and some current work I’m doing. That goes all the way back to the Black Artists Group, which emphasized the interrelationship of all the different disciplines.
My generation worked toward getting each other’s compositional goals heard, and breaking down this barrier between classical and jazz. Part of it was through performance practice. This period of the ’70s into the early ’80s was like a huge hot-house. Everyone was trying to do a large ensemble. Everyone was looking for alternate instrumentations—different duos and trios, saxophone quartets, bass quartets, and so on. What I’d tell a young musician about those years: You might not always identify with the ways people performed on their instruments. It might be rawer, or ruder, or something other than you might like. But the amount of ideas for how to combine composed or pre-decided material with spontaneous material was huge. It was blown open. DB