Back in the Valley: Marty Ehrlich Trio Expanse
Marty Ehrlich, extraordinary reed player, music scholar, storyteller and friend, returned to the Connecticut River Valley on December 16 to perform with his trio at the Blue Room in Easthampton, MA. This Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares event was a homecoming of sorts for Ehrlich, who taught at Hampshire College and lived part time in the Valley for 15 years, before retiring in 2019.
Although they have played together over the years, Ehrlich’s Friday performance with Trio Expanse: Matt Pavolka, bass and Mark Ferber, drums, was their first as a threesome. With one rehearsal under their belts, the musicians nailed a program of Ehrlich originals and one Julius Hemphill tune , with precision and élan.
Since producing the Marty Ehrlich Quintet (Tony Malaby, Michael Cain, Michael Formanek, Bobby Previte) in 1997 as part of the Magic Triangle Jazz Series, I’ve had the honor of presenting his large ensemble (“A Trumpet in the Morning”) in 2014, and his Philosophy of a Groove Quartet (with James Weidman, Jerome Harris, Chris Beck) and Duende Winds (with Nicole Mitchell, Tomeka Reid, Sara Shoenbeck), both in 2018. The breath of his imagination as a composer, instrumentalist and bandleader, is impressive. We discussed having his next western Mass visit be a duo, a context in which he also excels. In May, he’s playing with pianist Kris Davis as part of his week at The Stone. Hmmm.
Speaking of The Stone, Ehrlich introduced his piece “Stone”, with a beautiful story about Irving Stone, who befriended musicians like William Parker, Mark Feldman and Roy Campbell, and with his wife, attended thousands of jazz concerts in New York from the 1970s until his passing in 2003. A retired City employee, Irving once rented Town Hall for his friend Ornette Coleman, who complained that he wanted to be recognized for being more than a jazz artist. Part of the concert, featuring a new trio and a string quartet, was released as Town Hall, 1962 (ESP-Disk). John Zorn named his club after him.
Many years ago, Marianne Faithfull, for whom Ehrlich worked briefly, told him he should do stand-up. Indeed, his comedic timing and his storytelling skills are well above average. His musical phrasing, primarily on alto saxophone and clarinet, were also outstanding, producing streams of mini-melodies in voice-like patterns that went on for minutes on end. Ehrlich played flute and soprano saxophone on one tune each, but left his bass clarinet home.
I love hearing Ehrlich in trio format. It allows his compositions to shine, while providing a showcase for his considerable chops. For it to work, of course, you need a strong rhythm section. Ehrlich’s Trio Exaltation, with John Hébert and Nasheet Waits, might have a higher profile, but his new Trio Expanse is strong and supple.
Bassist Matt Pavolka deserved all the solo space he got, and then some. I was flabbergasted to learn that although he dabbled in high school, he only got serious about the bass while at Berklee; he entered college on a trombone scholarship. Growing up in Bloomington, Indiana, Pavolka had a solid music education at home (his father was a professional trombonist) and in school (he studied with David Baker). His facility on his instrument, his easy navigation of the material, and the wealth of his ideas, proved he was well prepared for the moment. I have him on records by Ohad Talmor, Noah Preminger, Guillermo Klein and Alan Ferber, and was glad to hear him live for the first time.
I first met Alan Ferber’s twin brother Mark when he performed with Linda May Han Oh in Miro Sprague’s Trio in Greenfield in 2014, and it was great to spend some quality time with him. Ferber was looking at the 25th anniversary Magic Triangle Series book we produced and saw Alex Snydman in a crowd photo. He taught Alex in LA many years ago and didn’t know he grew up in western Massachusetts. I love those points of coincidence. Ferber was completely comfortable with the material, hitting every signpost with precision and understated flourish.
I had the sense that both Ferber and Pavolka, a generation younger than Ehrlich, relished the opportunity to work with a veteran whose career involves the best musicians of our time. Hearing him share jazz lore and personal stories about Anthony Braxton, Muhal Richard Abrams and Julius Hemphill were precious.
Since retiring from Hampshire, Ehrlich has immersed himself in preserving the legacy of the great alto saxophonist, composer and conceptualist, Julius Hemphill. Both have a connection to St. Louis; Ehrlich was born there, and Hemphill moved there in 1968, where he helped launch the Black Artists Group. Ehrlich worked with Hemphill from 1978 until his passing in 1995, and spent a good part of the pandemic organizing Hemphill’s archives, now housed at NYU’s Fales Library. In 2021, Ehrlich curated, supervised and wrote extensive liner notes for The Boyé Multi-National Crusade for Harmony (New World Records), a critically acclaimed 7-CD box set of previously unreleased Hemphill material.
The night after their Easthampton performance, Trio Expanse played at Brooklyn’s Bar Bayeux. “The two gigs were a great shot in the arm for me,” Ehrlich wrote. “Great to play in front of the Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares family.” Ehrlich is now off to Poland, where he is recording with Michael Bates Acrobat and the Lutoslawski String Quartet. Hopefully, now that his scholarly labor of love is complete, Ehrlich can turn his attention back to the stage, where he continues to dazzle.