News On The Rail
Palmetto Records PM 2113

What reedist Marty Ehrlich seems to envision for this well-balanced sextet become particularly clear when you analyze the title track. Toting up the modus operandi you note that the instrumentation – one reed, one brass, piano, bass and drums, and the sixth man doubling brass or reeds – plus the understated harmonic voicing and unforced swing – calls up memories of the sophisticated composers and combos of the 1950s which negotiated a middle ground between the effeteness of the Cool School and the weightiness of Hard Bop.

Musicians such as Shorty Rogers and Shelley Manne on the West Coast, Gil Melle and Teddy Charles in the East, and the bi-coastal Jimmy Giuffre experimented with unusual instrumentation and unexpected compositional forms, while maintaining an easy rhythm in everything they did. “News On The Rail” is like that, as are most of the other seven tunes Ehrlich wrote for this date. On that track, Howard Johnson burbles a contrapuntal tuba ostinato throughout, drummer Allison Miller confines himself to light taps and bounces and the thematical exposition is divided between the leader’s clarinet and the odd slurs from James Weidman’s melodica – he’s just as effective on piano elsewhere.

Not surprisingly, Ehrlich has the background and experience to pull this off. Influenced by working with members of the Black Artist Group (BAG) in his hometown of St. Louis, the reedist perpetuates the BAG tradition as chief organizer of the Julius Hemphill Sextet since 1997, and performing the music of the late alto saxophonist. At the same time, as a graduate of Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music, Ehrlich has “legit” credits as well, having performed with ensembles such as the New York City Opera, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and several dance companies. His compositions have been played by ensembles as different as the Lydian String Quartet and the Rova Saxophone Quartet.

With Miller and bassist Greg Cohen, whose employers range from Ornette Coleman to Dixielanders, holding down the bottom, Ehrlich allows enough space for the front line – which includes James Zollar on trumpet and flugelhorn, Johnson on baritone saxophone and bass clarinet as well as tuba, and himself on alto saxophone and clarinet. Zollar, who has also been in David Murray’s big bands, sounds double- and triple-tongued grace notes on “Seeker’s Delight” and Trad Jazz wah wahs to match the drummer’s hard and heavy back beat on “Hear You Say”.

At times Weidman’s playing is reminiscent of Jaki Byard’s harmonized riffing, especially during Byard’s stint with Charles Mingus – who, incidentally, was associated with many of the 1950s’ progressives of both coasts in his day. Yet the pianist reaches an apogee of sorts on “Enough Enough” when his part-flowing, part-clipped lines supersede hocketing horn harmonics that are given extra heft with Johnson’s bari.

Furthermore, although at places Ehrlich’s alto line is slippery yet as formal as Bud Shank’s, on a piece like “Dance No. 2”, he opens up his extended solo with split tones and spetrofluctuation that would have made his mentor, Hemphill, proud. Zollar adds rubato trills and Weidman nimble dynamics.

In the spirit of full disclosure it should be noted that this prescription gets a little flimsy on “Light in the Morning (Many Thousand Gone)”, the nearly 10-minute longest track. For some reason the reedman seems feet that politely layering polyphonic harmonies behind his Giuffre-like nocturnal clarinet trills would make his compositional point. Instead the tune skirts George Shearing-Ahmad Jamal, polite bop exotica with horns. Even the descending piano chords and rattling cymbals sound like little more than decoration.

Except for that one misstep however, NEWS ON THE RAIL, can be enjoyed equally by those impressed by the continuation of sophisticated bop, as well as those merely impressed by unpretentious – but serious – contemporary jazz.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Enough Enough 2. Hear You Say 3. Light in the Morning (Many Thousand Gone) 4. News on the Rail 5. Dance No. 2 6. Erica 7. Seeker’s Delight 8. Keeper of the Flame (in memory of Sam Furnace)

Personnel: James Zollar (trumpet and flugelhorn); Marty Ehrlich (alto saxophone and clarinet); Howard Johnson (tuba, baritone saxophone and bass clarinet); James Weidman (piano and melodica); Greg Cohen (bass); Allison Miller (drums)