Liner notes for Malinke's Dance (OmniTone 12003)
Poet Marianne Moore in 1935 wrote "Nor till the poets among us can be 'literalists of the imagination' —above insolence and triviality and can present for inspection, 'imaginary gardens with real toads in them,' shall we have it."
Musician Marty Ehrlich may have found Moore's elusive "it." His early mentors intertwined artistic spirit with practical sensibility, a lesson Marty learned well and carries forth in his art.
Marty's jazz journey started with poetry and poets, individuals aiming to portray reality by transcending it through thoughtful language. Growing up in progressive University City (the first integrated suburb of St Louis) exposed him to teachers at Washington University, poets, composers, and members of the St Louis Symphony.
"I was primarily studying classical clarinet, then I got the bug to be a poet, and I met a number of older poets.... It was through poetry that I got the sense of what it felt like to be an artist," explains Marty.
By ninth grade, Marty became involved in Mecca —a multidisciplinary weekend arts program for young people, taught by enthusiastic young practitioners of music and poetry —and met members of BAG, the Black Artist Group. Having switched to saxophone, he became involved in frequent grassroots confabs —self-styled performance events, organized by poets and musicians —and he even occasionally backed on-air radio readings by poets on KDNA, an early Pacifica station.
"It was about people making work. People would have poetry get-togethers in people's houses, and then someone would be playing music. It was just there for me to get involved in," recounts Marty. "What I'm describing is an environment where I became conscious of being an artist..."
In this fruitful whirlwind of activity, Marty first met hometowners Julius Hemphill and Oliver Lake. He also met a man named Malinke Elliott.
"Malinke taught a theater class I took [at Mecca]. During the class he would play Ornette, Coltrane and Albert Ayler and different things. He started lending me records," he recalls. "I remember, very early on I spent time talking with Malinke, who said to me 'You know, don't separate all the various parts of the music; they're all connected.' He told me this when I was really quite young. And that always meant a lot to me..."
Take Malinke's advice he did, eventually traveling east to graduate with honors from The New England Conservatory of Music, learning "the common practice of jazz" and studying with Jaki Byard, George Russell, Gunther Schuller, and Joseph Allard. Through "hundreds and hundreds of concerts" and LP listening sessions with pianist and fellow student Anthony Coleman, Marty became acquainted with new and less familiar musics —early jazz, Ellington, world music and a lot of twentieth-century contemporary music.
The inevitable move to New York followed, and so did a diversified, already illustrious career which has led the Village Voice to describe Marty as "one of the most formidable multi-instrumentalists since Eric Dolphy" and "the jazz dream musician." He has toured internationally and has written commissioned works for New York Composer's Orchestra, the Lydian String Quartet, ROVA, and pianist Ursula Oppens, among many others. Marty's sideman credits and nearly 100 album appearances read like a Who's Who of jazz.
"My whole career has been of a piece of being involved with a lot of creative individuals and extending that through my own work, in particular, these last ten years and more and more," celebrates Marty.
These latter years have included directing the Julius Hemphill Sextet; co-leading two trios, Relativity and the Ehrlich/Dresser/Cyrille Trio, and a duo with pianist Myra Melford; and leading the Marty Ehrlich Quartet, the chamber-oriented Dark Woods Ensemble, and the group on this recording: Traveler's Tales.
"Each instrumentation pushes you to a different, natural thing," spells out Marty. "And Traveler's Tales records are different than the records I've done using piano —when I have the two horns and bass, I write the specific voices."
Building on Marty's longtime relationships with former NEC classmate Jerome Harris and drum dynamo Bobby Previte, Traveler's Tales covers widely encompassing, inclusive terrain which lives up to Malinke's admonition. New to the group is up and coming tenorman Tony Malaby, who Marty calls "a great instrumentalist, with a great ear for a blend between the two horns."
The particularly invigorating "Rhymes" demonstrates the pan-effectual bent of Marty's writing. Though it ultimately celebrates his children and their interconnectedness by incorporating nursery rhymes, the inspiration came while listening to a 24-hour tribute to trumpeter Lester Bowie on New York radio's WKCR at Bowie's passing. "A lot of early stuff I hadn't heard in a number of years —Art Ensemble stuff. At that period, he did a lot of quoting of nursery rhymes."
Another example, the title track for his early creative advisor, "has this loping sort of bass line, over which I have this sermon, or some kind of a narrative or story going. Contrasting phrases. I think this piece definitely has what I call the 'Hemphillian effect' chuckles Marty, referring to Julius Hemphill. The group performs a Hemphill original, "Pigskin" (referring to the composer's passion for football), further demonstrating that effect. "It's an example of this very striking contrast —the bass is very bluesy, almost a country blues line, but on top of it he writes this post-Parker eighth-note line," points out Marty.
This album provides a fully realized home for the compelling, Middle Eastern sounding, Phrygian-based "The Cry Of" —a piece which Marty reworks here, creating an exotic flute/tenor blend. Two other tunes return in the first Traveler's Tales recording in nearly seven years: "North Star" and "Willy Whippoorwill," the latter this time updated to steal a bow. And Marty tribs even Bob Dylan and the Band with a poignant "Tears of Rage."
Propelled by Marty's encircling hymnology, these Traveler's Tales slip and slide and motor, hooking up horns and bass, or horns and drums, sometimes stacking three layers of sound, sometimes melding together to elevate or wrench. They dance, whim and whimsy filling Marty's carefully constructed music, allowing us to hear and see —"inspect," if you will —our earthy roots, toads and all.
[Read complete interview with Marty Ehrlich.]