Marty Ehrlich Large Ensemble

A Trumpet in the Morning
New World Records 80752-2

Given a rare opportunity to show off his composing and arranging skills in a big band context, multi-reedist Marty Ehrlich accepts the challenge here. But in re-casting material for more than a dozen musicians he demonstrates the superiority of some of his compositions over others. It’s not that there’s any second-rate music here. But the tunes composed for college and high school ensembles maintain their academic and pedagogical roots. They’re pleasing yet simplistic performances without the depth and compositional sophistication of the other material.

While even these swinging trifles include memorable licks from consistent professionals such as trombonist Ray Anderson, whose modern gutbucket-style is often on show, the CD’s worth is confirmed during two major suites. One, “Rundowns and Turnbacks” demonstrates the band members’ ability to adapt to and expand on musical forms in seven sequences. The other, “A Trumpet in the Morning”, is built around a recitation of poem by Arthur Brown. Brown (1948-1982) was from St. Louis, as is Ehrlich and bass and soprano saxophonist J.D. Parran, who does the recitation. Unlike the musicians, the poet was never affiliated with that city’s Black Artists Group of the early 1970s. But his words, given more resonance by Ehrlich’s arrangements, reflect the creative ferment of the time that blossomed with experiments in theatre as well as the programs of other improvisers such as Julius Hemphill and Oliver Lake.

Drawing on both analytical poetics and vernacular expressions, Brown’s words are voiced by Parran in such a way that they sift everyday reality through the kaleidoscope of musical references. While there are times where the folksy poetics sound uneasily as if they were created by a combination of DuBose Heyward and James Weldon Johnson, they’re saved from faux patois by a combination of Parran’s passionate delivery, which is half-sung as much as spoken, and Ehrlich’s orchestration. With piano keyboard clicking, vibes resonating and undulating capillary cries from the brass, descriptive obbligatos are set up and utilized. With echoes of rural Blues, brass bands and Jazz-tinged gospel music the music and words are melded. Parran’s rip-snorting, note-splattering dexterity on the giant horn adds to the sincerity of the presentation as well as broadening its implicit drama.

Otherwise the seven “Rundowns and Turnbacks”; which have titles such as “The Ship on the Corner” and “‘Didn’t Know the Leeves Would Break’ Blues”, have been re-orchestrated over the years by Ehrlich to mix and match idioms. At points for example high Europeanized, introverted clarinet lines played by the composer himself brush up against drummer Eric McPherson’s power backbeat and countrified Blues licks via James Zollar’s trumpet and Jerome Harris’ slide guitar. Later smooth finger-style guitar breaks meet John Clark’s mellow French horn expressions until harmonized cross tone from the horn section presage a deeper, more ferocious narrative. Before a finale of slippery continuum, military-style beats and mournful reed lines are both introduced. More notably, none of the transitions are too rapid as to upset the basic swinging melody.

Some of the music on this CD is exceptional enough to be considered alongside the highest quality big band writing; some is merely notable and well played. Considering this is Ehrlich’s first recording of his large ensemble compositions, the possibility of his next outing being superior remains a strong possibility. Right now though, the listener can revel in the high quality sequences on this disc.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Prelude: Agbekor Translations^& 2. A Trumpet in the Morning^& 3. Blues for Peace# 4. Rundowns and Turnbacks^: I. The Ship on the Corner+ II. Rundowns II. This Graceful Waltz IV. “Didn’t Know the Leeves Would Break” Blues V. Quaker Work Song V. Sugar for Sugar VII. Turnbacks~#%5. My Variations (Melody for Madeleine)#*& 6. Postlude: Agbekor Translations^

Personnel: E.J. Allen, James Zollar, Ron Horton and Miki Hirose* (trumpet); Ray Anderson, Michael Dessen and Curtis Fowlkes # (trombone); John Clark# (French horn); Joseph Daley^ (tuba); Andy Laster (alto saxophone); Robert DeBellis (alto and soprano saxophone and clarinet); Jason Robinson (tenor saxophone [except 4]); Adam Kolker # (tenor saxophone and clarinet); Howard Johnson^ or Lisa Parrott #, (baritone saxophone), J.D. Parran^ (soprano and bass saxophone; bass clarinet and narration); Uri Caine# or James Weidman^% (piano); Jerome Harris~* (guitar and slide guitar); Drew Gress# or Brad Jones~^(bass); Warren Smith& (vibraphone and percussion); Eric McPherson^ or Matt Wilson# (drums) and Marty Ehrlich (clarinet+ and conductor)