Soon after the start of Wednesday’s March 21st Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares concert, bandleader Marty Ehrlich confessed that he’d had “twenty-four hours of weather anxiety.” Despite the fact that Spring had sprung, we found ourselves nervously tracking the arrival of yet another mid-week snow storm. Plans were changed so that pianist James Weidman and drummer Chris Beck could arrive in the Valley on Tuesday night, avoiding the foot of snow dumped on New York beginning early Wednesday. With Ehrlich and bassist Jerome Harris already in Amherst, and the weather gods fully cooperating, 80 lucky listeners were treated to an immensely satisfying evening of music.
Ehrlich’s Philosophy of a Groove delivered a 90-minute tour de force at Hampshire College, confirming my belief that the 62-year old reed man is one of the most complete and creative musicians in jazz. Playing mostly alto sax, and some soprano sax and clarinet, Ehrlich touched many moods and grooves whipping through a set of evocative compositions of his own making.
Ehrlich is known for doing many things well. He is fluent on multiple instruments, is a major composer and arranger, a committed educator (at Hampshire), a gifted storyteller and a credible poet (although his wife Erica Hunt is the professional wordsmith in the family.) He is also a good friend to many and a force for good. There was a lot of Marty-love in the room.
He came up in St. Louis where he cut his teeth with poets, dancers, and musicians from the Black Artist Group. He studied at the New England Conservatory with Jaki Byard, Joe Maneri, George Russell and Ran Blake before being mentored on the bandstand by Anthony Braxton, Muhal Richard Abrams, Julius Hemphill and John Carter. Ehrlich has parlayed that pedigree into one of the most significant careers of his generation.
Although he has over 25 releases as a leader featuring a wide range of ensembles, this Philosophy of a Groove band has yet to record, a situation, one hopes, soon corrected. But Ehrlich has a ton of history with Harris, a former roommate and his most enduring musical collaborator. Ehrlich and Weidman go back over a dozen years, when the pianist appeared on his 2005 CD, News on the Rail. One of the evening’s highlights was a plaintive piano/clarinet duet, “Keeper of the Flame,” which appeared on that Palmetto recording.
Ehrlich and the thirty-something drummer Chris Beck met in October, playing in Rufus Reid’s large ensemble at Dizzy’s Coca-Cola in New York. Beck also powers Oliver Lake’s big band, so he can certainly propel. His two extended solos were strong, sophisticated statements, forceful without bombast, logical, and locked in. I’m a new fan. An example of us all benefiting from Ehrlich’s wide engagement with the jazz world.
Ehrlich has recently been working with NYU’s Hemispheric Institute to catalog some of Julius Hemphill’s archive. He remains a true champion of Hemphill’s important contribution to American music. Ehrlich’s original, “Blue Boye’s Blues”, a sprawling dedication to the late saxophonist/composer, was a centerpiece of the concert. Hemphill embodied the voracious artistic appetite that defined BAG, and Ehrlich’s piece reflected his interest in blues, jazz forms, r&b, extended techniques, and sound environments. As Oliver Lake, another BAG alum, likes to say, “put all my food on one plate.” Ehrlich’s playing here, and throughout the evening, was masterful, in full control of his instrument and his ideas.
Ehrlich has led classical-leaning string ensembles, saxophone sextets, and big bands, explored “radical Jewish culture,” spoken word, the Black avant-garde, and all of jazz history. He has a new idea: a quartet featuring flute (Nicole Mitchell), cello (Tomeka Reid), bassoon (Sara Shoenbeck) and his reed array. It is scheduled for Season 7 of Jazz Shares, the week after Thanksgiving. Has anyone seen the forecast?