by john sharpe
One of the pivotal events in reedman Marty Ehrlich’s life occurred when he was still a teenager. He was already playing clarinet in the St. Louis Youth Orchestra when a weekend arts program turned his head completely. Though he was there for the poetry, the poets discovered that he also played saxophone and flute, and encouraged him to improvise accompaniments to their readings. This chance encounter led to meeting Jim Marshall, founding member of the Human Arts Ensemble, and through him members of the seminal Black Artists Group, including drummer Charles Bobo Shaw and theater director Malinké Elliott. Ehrlich recalls: “When I make the jump, I jump all the way. Not to jazz in general. It was the new jazz that grabbed me, hearing Coltrane, hearing Dolphy on bass clarinet, hearing Ornette, hearing the Art Ensemble [of Chicago], hearing Anthony Braxton’s solo alto record, hearing Dogon A.D. on the radio. And I jump[ed] a hundred percent into playing with Jim Marshall.” At age 17, that led to an appearance and co-arranger credits on the HAE’s Under the Sun album, alongside Oliver Lake, Lester Bowie, J.D. Parran (a lifelong friend and collaborator since) and others.
Having made the transition to jazz, Ehrlich enrolled at the New England Conservatory, where his teachers included George Russell, Jaki Byard and Ran Blake. Although he was familiar with the wider tradition of jazz and African American music, it was not what drove him. “Without question, the innovations of the AACM and Black Artists Group [BAG] shaped my creative focus and my artistic goals. It was people like Malinké and Julius [Hemphill] who said to me, listen, you’ve got a good feel for this, but to play this music, you have to know the history. Then Malinké would say, don’t throw classical music out the window. You’ve played classical music, and you’re Jewish. What is your Jewish musical background? They were inclusive.” Ehrlich took those words to heart, and his music has subsequently privileged the lyrical as much as the experimental.
Moving to New York City after graduation, he joined Russell’s Living Time Orchestra, appearing at the Village Vanguard, and then reconnected with Shaw
and trombonist Joe Bowie from BAG, who were living in LaMama Studio on the Lower East Side at the time. It was there that he got another big break, being invited to join Anthony Braxton’s Creative Music Orchestra for a European tour. “It’s where I begin to meet the AACM people. I meet Wadada [Leo Smith], who recommends me to Leroy Jenkins, who recommends me to Muhal Richard Abrams. After that Braxton tour, I begin to work in New York City with the Chicago musicians, all of whom are doing big bands or octets.” Ehrlich also worked in small groups with Jenkins, Hemphill, Jack DeJohnette and others, while taking his own first steps as a leader.
One of his earliest groups was what became his Traveler’s Tales quartet. College buddy Stan Strickland (and later Tony Malaby) shared the front line, and there has been a changing roster of bassists and drummers. It was here that Ehrlich began to develop his compositional voice. “I’m beginning to do my sort of pan-stylistic looking, using traditional forms, using open forms, in a sense following the Jaki Byard/George Russell/Julius Hemphill playbook. Find what you need to express, use the materials, don’t censor them as, ‘oh, that’s too traditional, that’s too avant garde, that doesn’t have enough improv,’ whatever. And I’m getting an audience for it.” Having largely put his clarinet to one side after his teen years, he began to incorporate it back into his music again, with a clarinet/cello/bass trio he named the Dark Woods Ensemble. Ehrlich explains: “The title’s taken from [Spanish poet Federico García] Lorca, where he says that everything that has duende (elfin or goblinlike) dark sounds. So it is an ensemble that I begin to write for to really get into this sound. You could call it the wood sound.”
While these two units provided the main outlets for his writing for many years, the reedman also explored other avenues, including duets with pianists Myra Melford, Mike Nock and Muhal. At the other extreme, he became involved with Wayne Horvitz, Robin Holcomb and Bobby Previte in the New York Composers Orchestra, and recorded two large ensemble albums, The Long View and A Trumpet in the Morning. But whatever the scale, improvisation has always loomed large for Ehrlich. “The overwhelming majority of my composing is creating compositional contexts that always involve some amount of improvisation in their realization, using any number of strategies, even just small amounts. My passion is to write for this wonderful community of improvisers.” Trombonist Ray Anderson, a colleague since the Braxton Orchestra days, offers his own appreciation: “Marty Ehrlich is the whole package—encyclopedic knowledge of the African-American musical culture that jazz is based on, as well as the European music that is interwoven with it. He has his own creative voice, can play all the saxophones, clarinets and flutes superbly and is a powerful composer of works for large and small ensembles.”
Ehrlich also took on a production role for New World Records, appearing on, leading or producing some 15 albums in the CounterCurrents series in the early ’90s. New connections ensued and he became part of the John Carter Octet and Andrew Hill Sextet. Indeed, Ehrlich was the first person Hemphill rang when he formed his all-reed Julius Hemphill Sextet after he left the World Saxophone Quartet. One of the most significant figures in Ehrlich’s career, Hemphill became a close friend as well as an employer. Later, Ehrlich stepped in at various points when illness meant Hemphill was unable to perform, and he led the Sextet after the reedman’s death in 1995.
That history made him the ideal person to establish the Hemphill Archive at NYU, a role he took on in 2018 in conjunction with Hemphill’s Artistic Executor, pianist Ursula Oppens. Over three years he catalogued 250 compositions and 180 archival documents and recordings, as well as personal papers, all of which are available online in an archive which is now seen as the gold standard. Ehrlich found the experience tremendously rewarding: “It’s a love thing and it’s also because I happen to think this music is really worth it. There’s amazing discoveries. And I start talking. And I’m just met by such warmth. His community was my community.” Just after he had finished his 280-page book documenting the archive, New World Records got in touch saying they had a grant for a project which had fallen through and were looking for a proposal. The upshot was that Ehrlich spent the next year curating The Boyé Multi-National Crusade for Harmony, a stupendous seven-CD boxed set of unissued material that revealed the enormous breadth of Hemphill’s work.
Since completing the Archive and since COVID-19, he has turned his attention back to his own work. A new six-piece group will debut at Roulette this month. Ehrlich explains, “I’ve called the concert Dark Woods/Bright Sparks. Both titles and words I’ve used in the past, but this is not a retrospective concert. I’ve put together an ensemble that affords me a really large range of directions. I’m looking to make a soundscape that incorporates all these players, [bassoonist] Sara Schoenbeck, [trumpeter] Ron Horton, [bassist] Matt Pavolka, [cellist] Erik Friedlander, [percussionist] Satoshi Takeishi, and poet Erica Hunt. All will have an improvisational role—solo, duo, collective. I’ve always heard this moving through time, with a slow beat underneath whatever happens on top. What’s on top might be extremely vigorous and extroverted, but there’s still this sort of heartbeat underneath it. And I invite people in. To me the excitement of collective improvised music is the dialectic with the audience. You don’t go to it to hear the finished, perfect piece. You are there to be part [of it]. You play a role in listening, in the realization on this evening of the complete expression.”
It’s been a busy and rewarding Fall for Ehrlich. He is resuming his role in pianist Anthony Davis’ Episteme group, which will be playing in the Metropolitan Opera’s remounting of X, Davis’ opera based on the life of Malcolm X. “I play a certain amount of composed parts, some lead melodies, some within sections. I have maybe seven short improvisational moments that often serve the action on stage in different ways.” He is also taking on the role of Interim Director of Jazz Studies at Stony Brook University following Anderson’s retirement. And then there are more plans as yet unfinalized for other groups. But it is all part of a continuum for Ehrlich: “My roots and my passions are in this place where improvisation and notation combust, and in the powers of collective improvisation. It’s what I started doing with the Human Arts Ensemble when I was 16, and I’m still doing it. To me, it is the revolutionary force.”
For more info visit martyehrlich.com.
• Marty Ehrlich—The Welcome (Sound Aspects, 1984)
• Julius Hemphill Sextet—Fat Man and The Hard Blues (Black Saint, 1991)
• Marty Ehrlich’s Dark Woods Ensemble—Just Before The Dawn (New World, 1995)
• Andrew Hill—Dusk (Palmetto, 1999)
• Marty Ehrlich—Fables (Tzadik, 2010)
• Marty Ehrlich—Trio Exaltation (Clean Feed, 2017)