Marty Ehrlich’s Rites Quartet – Frog Leg Logic (CF 242)
Marty Ehrlich has long been one of the premiere songbirds of new music. He writes strong melodies and his best solos have the lyrical flow of song, his tone the shine and vibrato of the human voice. His new CD, with a revamped Rites Quartet – Ehrlich and trumpeter James Zollar are joined by cellist Hank Roberts, and drummer Michael Sarin – is a vibrant and tuneful example of his art.
The band’s instrumentation begs comparison to groups led by the late Julius Hemphill, an early mentor of Ehrlich’s. As Ehrlich matured as an artist, so did his relationship with Hemphill; Ehrlich was a sideman and peer in Hemphill’s big band and his final working ensemble, the Julius Hemphill Sextet. He has continued to explore his compositional legacy through his leadership of the Sextet. Ehrlich has certainly absorbed and personalized some of Hemphill’s techniques, which is especially evident in the funky cello vamps that undergird “Ballade” and “You Can Beat the Slanted Cards.” The resemblances, while worth mentioning, are hardly the full story and Ehrlich is securely his own man throughout.
He certainly solos in his own voice. On “Ballade” his every phrase is big and bold and played for all it’s worth and Ehrlich’s relationship to what came before him is clear, even when it strikes you at first as surprising. Perhaps that song-full quality in his soloing is closest in spirit (although not in form) to Johnny Hodges. His remarkably cohesive flute solo on “Solace” hangs together like a well crafted short story, with every detail supporting the narrative and deepening its emotional impact. Even his solo on the short, agitated “Walk Along the Way,” with its short nervous phrases built from wide intervals, menacing growls, and irregular silences, while seemingly fractured and jumbled, betrays the essential storytelling quality of his improvising. He is player of wide emotional range, as well. In its slow but purposeful unfolding, “My Song,” a duet with cellist Roberts, displays unforced lyricism, autumnal melancholy, and serenity. “Gravedigger’s Respite” capers along with a joyfulness that buries not the dead, but death itself.
Zollar makes an excellent foil for Ehrlich. There’s a dark undertow in his tone that nicely counterbalances Ehrlich’s brightness – he’s a master colorist. On “You Can Beat the Slanted Cards,” he busts his notes apart into growls, crimps their edges with a half-valve squeeze, or hammers them out into broad, bronzy smears. The constant play with texture and color, as well as phrase length, gives the solo a jumpy, charged, percussive quality. He also uses his command of a wide spectrum of timbre to create call and response between registers, and between sounds and lines in his solo on “Solace.”
Roberts and Sarin function as both rhythm section and lead voices as called for by the situation. They keep the music varied, but uncluttered, letting hints and implications of the beat carry the tunes forward just as often as they nail a groove. The open group sound, the interplay of melody and color, the emotional commitment and intellectual engagement of the band make this one of Ehrlich’s finest albums.