with Marty Ehrlich
Tafuri: How do you go about writing a tune?
Ehrlich: I look to get hooked on something. It might be a melodic fragment, a motive ... I might have some kind of a shape in mind, and then I try to find the style or context for the feeling. Sometimes I do aim to write with a model in mind — I think that's valid. Mostly my models are unconscious — I think they're a melange of a lot of things. Some of it comes out of getting hooked on something, and then sometimes an idea gets connected to it. [Sings a melody from the record] Sometimes it's just little narratives like that in my mind.
Tafuri: You're so prolific, you write so much, one of the things I'm curious about — some people, when they get the inspiration, they write. Maybe you're inspired all the time, I don't know...
Ehrlich: For me, context is very important as an improviser. The writing is also a way of setting myself up, and setting the band up.
Tafuri: If you're going to take the time to write the tune, you might as well set yourself up...
Ehrlich: Exactly. So for me, writing is more than just a tune — I think a lot, as I write, about the contrast of piece after piece.
Tafuri: You not only think about yourself, but I would imagine yourself within the context of whatever ensemble you're thinking about...
Ehrlich: Certainly. Exactly. For this group in particular, I wanted to exploit the individuals. These are people I've played with for many years, and have a long relationship with. Also the fact that there was Jerome playing the electric bass, which has a different ambience than the acoustic — Bobby and Jerome have a very tight rhythm section thing, and Bobby has a way of playing — I want to exploit them both as two very strong individuals and also a certain way they blend. It changed how I wrote for the bass function a bit.
Tafuri: Compositionally, how important is continuity in the thought process? You haven't made a record with Traveler's Tales for seven years now, or something, right?
Ehrlich: Well, I'll tell you how this started. I started wanting to do this instrumentation — each instrumentation pushes you to a different, natural thing — this group is different, primarily with Jerome. I'm very rich in my relationship with bass players: Jerome Harris, Michael Formanek, Mark Helias ... I just always love playing with bass. When I meet a bass player, the first thing I want to do is get together and play duo. There's a certain continuity in that.
Tafuri: But how conscious it is...
Ehrlich: It's different than the records I've done using piano — when I just have the two horns and bass, I write the specific voices. It's pretty exciting doing that with Tony, who has such a unique voice, but also a great collective blend.
Tafuri: A couple of the tunes on the album I thought were really amazing. One of them that I really liked was "Malinke's Dance."
Ehrlich: Well that one actually had a genesis in a little fragment of a saxophone quartet I wrote. Stuff I was fooling around with — ROVA saxophone quartet commissioned me, and it was just something I threw in for two measures. I decided to expand it to a whole piece.
Tafuri: Well, there's your hook.
Ehrlich: Exactly. It has this loping sort of bass line, over which I have this sermon, or some kind of a narrative or story going [sings melody]. Contrasting phrases. I think this piece definitely has what I call the "Hemphillian effect" . [Laughs.]
Tafuri: I'm sorry if I'm focusing so much on the composition process...
Ehrlich: I think it's what gives my records some character.
Tafuri: When did Malinke come into the development of this piece? You said you started with this germ of an idea....
Ehrlich: Right when I was writing it. I could see him doing a little dance to it. He's an actor, so he's a physical person. Also, he's been such a huge supporter of me over the years.
Tafuri: You were talking about, a minute ago, the "Hemphillian effect"...
Ehrlich: It's a play on what they call the "Ellington effect"...
Ehrlich: I don't even know exactly what it is, but there's something I've always loved that's bluesy, but not necessarily directly or obviously bluesy. It's just using your musical instincts. Plus, I felt this melody had a lot of contrast and drive to it.
Tafuri: "The Cry" is the one you play...
Ehrlich: Now that's one that I've tried in other groups that didn't work. I finally found a way that it worked in this ensemble.
Tafuri: So you made a home for the composition.
Ehrlich: That's the other nice thing of having a couple different instrumentations. This was just based off of one phrase I've been playing for like a year at the piano [sings melody]. It's based on the Phrygian scale, which is the scale of a lot of Arabic music.
Tafuri: And then you get into a real kind of Arabic rhythm
Ehrlich: Exactly. It's in an odd meter, and then I wrote this one driving line, almost like an oud melody, but then something more like a Gil Evans-ish second part. A sort of floating harmony, so I have contrast of mood. Something more aggressive, something more reflective.
Tafuri: Where did the title come from?
Ehrlich: Well, I thought of that phrase "the cry of jazz" — so I thought just "The Cry Of," because I don't know what this is. We're in this period now where people are labeling things, or trying to, and it's hard to know. I'm the product of a lot of influences, a product of my times and my background. I was sort of being coy — I wasn't saying what it was. I'm just going to call it "The Cry."
Tafuri: You and Lacy... [Laughs.]
Ehrlich: Maybe I'll call it "The Cry Of." [Laughs.] It's about that vocal quality, too.
Tafuri: You know what's amazing is you play — and I'm not necessarily trying to draw this back to Julius — you play soprano on a couple tracks...
Ehrlich: Yeah, I wanted to bring that back out...
Tafuri: I love the way you play, and of course you have your own voice, but it's really amazing, when I heard your tone, it reminded of that early Julius album on Black Saint/Soul Note Raw Materials...
Ehrlich: Raw Materials and Residuals — oh, that record's great. He had one of the most vocal sounds on the soprano, and a very different sort of sound.
Tafuri: The sound really comes through, and I guess one of the things I was really curious about was, what ways do you think Julius influenced you?
Ehrlich: Oh, in many, many ways — first of all, it's hard to answer because it's very personal.
Tafuri: You don't have to talk about this if you don't want to...
Ehrlich: Even though I worked a lot with him, I worked with a lot of people, and I can't say that for better or worse, I much copied anybody. I feel like I tried to be a little bit stubborn. I've had to stand next to a lot of these guys who, at a very young age, I was inspired by — even as a teenager. I found myself working with them professionally by my twenties, so the challenge was to not be...
Tafuri: To find your own voice.
Ehrlich: Exactly. To sound like I had my own reasons to be standing up there. For me, some of that was just being into the creative part of the music. I don't want to be a "stylist".
Tafuri: How old were you when you started playing?
Ehrlich: Seven. On clarinet.
Tafuri: You started on clarinet? Like in elementary school?
Tafuri: When did you start playing the saxophone?
Ehrlich: Junior high school.
Tafuri: I'm sorry, this is sort of the basics here, but I'm going somewhere with this — when did you start getting an idea that you wanted to be a musician?
Ehrlich: 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. At the same time, through the poets, I started to meet some of the jazz musicians — new jazz musicians, as opposed to playing in your high school big band.
Ehrlich: I started improvising, actually first with poets. Then I suddenly began to hear the new music coming from St Louis and from Chicago, I began to listen to Coltrane and Dolphy, and somewhere around 16 I got the bug intensely to want to play this new music. I worked my way backwards from there. I really was taken by the music of the sixties, and then began to educate myself through a number of years to get back to Armstrong. So it was really through words, and then music, but I had always been playing. In the tenor of the times I stopped playing clarinet for a while, because clarinet was "classical"....
Tafuri: Or it was too much like Benny Goodman, or whatever.
Ehrlich: It took me a number of years to break through some of that. I'm of the generation that experienced the sixties at a little bit of a remove — I really came of age more in the early seventies.
Tafuri: How old are you?
Ehrlich: I'm 44. I left for college in 1972.
Tafuri: It's interesting that you came back around from the words, from that sort of context, because it gives me a little bit more of an insight into your music. I feel like there is a real kind of lexical component to your music.
Ehrlich: I imagine there is.
Tafuri: There's a real speaking kind of thing — even when you were talking about Ornette, and how he was speaking, and how Julius would speak with his horn. Have you ever done anything with words?
Ehrlich: I've recently been doing some performances with my wife. Historically, I did a lot of it in my earlier years.
Tafuri: Have you ever written any songs or choral music?
Ehrlich: I've never been drawn to write lyrics, as it were. I've never really had much luck doing that; I've never done the more traditional thing with it. When one thing stopped, the other picked up. I stopped writing poetry at a certain point. I think if anything, I compose a lot the way I would revise a poem. I think I learned about composing a lot from writing poetry at an earlier age.
Tafuri: That's really interesting, because what it makes me think about is when you trying to learn another language, trying to communicate in another language. The best way to learn that other language and really become proficient at it and take it to an artistic level is to not speak your own language. When I go to Italy for a week, and I'm with my family down in a little 1100-person village in the south of Italy, when I can't speak any English, that's when I sort of move to the next level. I'm not trying to read too much into this, but maybe you really are trying to speak through your improvisation, through your composition. One of the pieces I really love on the album is "Rhymes"...
Ehrlich: That one's a very happy piece, and it has a couple of nursery rhymes in it. I wrote it when Lester Bowie died, and they played 24 hours of his music on WKCR. 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.
Ehrlich: Which were "3 Blind Mice" and things like that, which was very different at the time — it was a period when people were not doing things like that. It was sort of funny, it could be a little poignant, it brought up a lot of feelings in me. Then the piece just came together with a certain joie de vivre, a certain light-heartedness. It was surely part of Lester, to some extent.
Tafuri: You were talking before about kids, that there was an elements of kids...
Ehrlich: Well, because it has a little [sings melody of "3 Blind Mice"] in there, it's got actually a number of quotes that I won't delineate. [Laughs.] They're from a number of sources. I spend a lot of time around kids. It's one for them.
Tafuri: You were talking about being a product of influences; how do you think having your own kids has influenced you?
Ehrlich: Very much so. It's hard to ... it's the deepness of love in a way. They're part of you, and you're part of them, and you're growing up together.
Tafuri: In a lot of different ways....
Ehrlich: In many ways. It surely is hard to know what it's doing for you directly, creatively, but one thing it makes you do is you have to focus your energy, because you don't have all day to procrastinate. [Laughs.]
Tafuri: Adding a little more to the plate — that'll do it. Speaking of playful elements, you have this ongoing tradition of playing with "I'll Remember You"...
Ehrlich: I've been working with this for a while. I've rewritten this tune a number of times. I love the chord changes, and it's one of the few times I've done this tradition of writing another melody, which goes back to Louis Armstrong. I just love those changes, and it seems like we found a way to do this — and actually we tried a number of forms to make it work. Originally I started out with the melody, but then we found that to sort of gradually work into the melody worked better. To me they're just a great set of changes, because they have these cool, bright modulations — which is one reason I called it "Bright Remembered." I get mental images from the harmony of this, so I play off that. It's one of my favorite tunes.
Tafuri: It's a great tune to work out on, that's for sure.
Ehrlich: When you think about it, it has been a favorite of a lot of alto players. Probably because one of the great versions is by Bird. And that's where I first learned the melody — off that Verve record. Konitz, Cannonball, Phil Woods, they've all recorded it.
Tafuri: How about "Willy Whippoorwill"?
Ehrlich: That's an old piece, that's actually also connected to Malinke Elliott, 'cause it was a fictional character of his. It's a piece I played for so long with Bobby, Bobby being such a great funk drummer that I wanted to bring it back to life. It's always just been a simple piece that worked.
Tafuri: It's fun, though.
Ehrlich: Sort of a little blues, R&B thing.
It's cool — talk about a lot of different influences...
Ehrlich: I think it's always a bit of both. When you write your music, you're writing it to fit you first, but one of the ways to be a good leader is if you can make the other people as comfortable as possible too. So they get to their deep stuff too — it's a challenge. Easier said than done. It's also not always about the writing, but being open to how they're going to push you, in the improvisation. A couple times Tony just kicked me in the behind there on that tenor — that's the nice thing about him. One thing about having the two saxophones is there's the language of the two instruments to get into. This is a group that's somewhat about exploring like instruments, as opposed to a group with different instruments. In my Dark Woods, I had the cello and bass, so often I'd use them as a setup for the clarinet, because there's this rich string sound....
Tafuri: I've got a crazy question for you: if you could have a band, anybody you wanted in it, living or dead, who — and I know, you'd play with the same guys you're playing with now — but let's imagine...you could have your dream band...
Ehrlich: Oh man, that's an impossible question. I like playing with my peers.
Tafuri: I'm watching your wheels turn, though ... you're being a little diplomatic here.
Ehrlich: Of course, you wonder what would it be like to stand next to somebody, next to Eric Dolphy, but I don't think I'm someone who can do everything, even though I've done a lot, and at this point it's about being able to lock in with someone.
Tafuri: I may ask you the question again, 'cause I saw the wheels turning — there is a certain amount of diplomacy...
Ehrlich: I don't feel like it'd be so great to play with all the legends anymore — even living. I feel fortunate; I've played with this long list of really individualistic people in all contexts from Jaki Byard to George Russell on up to Muhal and Julius and Bobby Previte's music and Wayne Horvitz's music — all those people you know I've played with. I haven't played with too many generic people.
Tafuri: They're all voices.
Ehrlich: Yeah, there's a great challenge. So that's been part of my inspiration. You know, like with John Carter, to stick with what you know. But in the last few years I've made the transition to mostly doing my own stuff and also doing a lot of stuff in collectives. That's a little different thing than playing as a leader; it's about what we do together.
Tafuri: And then everyone makes their own compositional contributions to that, too.
Ehrlich: And are willing to perhaps adjust their compositions for what works in the collective. It has advantages and disadvantages.
Tafuri: You said you came into the music through poetry. I'm interested in talking a little more about how you actually got into the music. What really motivated you? What really turned you on? Of all the different kinds of musics you could play — I guess you said your music was classical training —
Ehrlich: — well, it's true. I did what was available in the schools, and then I was in the jazz band. Part of it is a combination of asking to play an instrument at a young age, and my parents took me to a program, and they gave me a clarinet. Some of it's almost that capricious.
Tafuri: Were your parents musicians?
Ehrlich: No, they're not, but, as I mentioned, they're concertgoers, and we played a lot of music in the household.
Tafuri: What kind of music did you hear when you were growing up?
Ehrlich: Classical, folk, Yiddish music — Yiddish and traditional Jewish music.
Tafuri: More of a klezmer kind of thing?
Ehrlich: Not klezmer so much as — we had this record Jewish Memories — sort of orchestral versions of songs. That would play a lot. So I was around a lot of music around the house.
Tafuri: But really not any jazz, per se.
Ehrlich: Not jazz, per se. That I sort of discovered through my school library. I started listen to stuff when I was a bit older. But to make a point of it is that I did come upon, in St Louis, a scene of artists, and my first connection was through meeting primarily this group of poets with whom I began writing poetry and hanging out. Through them I began to meet some of the musicians.
Tafuri: What that the Black Artists Group?
Ehrlich: Well, it was a couple of different things. The poets had different names. There was a group called "The River Styx Poets." And another important thing was a radio station called KDNA, one of the early Pacifica stations.
Tafuri: I think it's still around.
Ehrlich: Not to my knowledge. I was able to hear a lot of music on that station. And I even improvised on that station some early on.
Tafuri: You improvised with it or on it?
Ehrlich: On a show with some poets. We used to read poetry and play music on that station.
Tafuri: That's really interesting.
Ehrlich: And then I met a guy named Jim Marshall who was a guy who put out a couple albums called The Human Arts Ensemble, and through Jim I met Oliver Lake and Lester Bowie. Bowie I met at his house for the first time. And Bobo Shaw. It was through Jim I met a lot of the Black Artists Group.
Tafuri: All those people were in the St Louis area?
Ehrlich: They all were there, but by the time I came on the scene, most of theme had already — I never saw a Black Artists Group concert. It had disbanded by the time I became aware of it.
Tafuri: And what year was this?
Ehrlich: 1969 to 1970. People had already moved to other points, either New York or Europe. But the energy was still very much there in the city. Well, I first met Malinke Elliott through a weekend arts program called "Mecca" which actually was held in a building that had been the building that BAG had used. It was a big, empty warehouse. Malinke taught a theater class I took. During the class he would play Ornette, Coltrane and Albert Ayler and different things. He started lending me records.
Tafuri: This was during poetry class?
Ehrlich: No, this was theater class, but this was a program that brought together musicians, you could study poetry and music, and it was the actual practitioners. It was this group of young people they had teach. So I also met people through there; I met a number of the poets through this program called "Mecca."
Tafuri: And how old were you then?
Ehrlich: I was in ninth grade. Those of us who went were also the ones who had organized around the Peace Movement and to go to the Moratorium in Washington, so it was all sort of connected. St Louis had this sort of — in my community there was a strong sort of politics, and there was this arts stuff going on. I feel very much that I was there at a time when there was a lot of stuff happening. I can't even give it to you chronologically.
Tafuri: It's really amazing, Marty, because what you're talking about is... You know, we talk about multidisciplinary things are far as the arts go. What you were going through was multidisciplinary not only on an artistic level — you had poets and writers and artists and musicians and dancers — but also politically, culturally, probably socioeconomically, as well.
Ehrlich: I grew up in a community called "University City" which was and still is a very progressive community. The first integrated community in St Louis. Integration was a big issue. They almost voluntarily had bussing in that community — it was narrowly defeated — to integrate the schools. It would have been the first community in the country probably to do that. On one hand, it was a very progressive community, but when I lived there, there was a lot of "white flight" as well. The blacks moving in were definitely the black bourgeoisie, as it were. This was the first suburb they could move to. U City was not even a suburb. It's a separate city, but it's not what you think of when you think of a suburb.
Tafuri: It feels like the city.
Ehrlich: In the neighborhood I grew up in, I was surrounded by many of the teachers at Washington University, poets, composers, members of the St Louis Symphony, and then, through this program called Mecca, I began to meet this musicians. It was all there, and people were doing things. It was about people making work. That's an important word. 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.
Tafuri: So when you're saying "work," you're meaning artistic work...
Ehrlich: Exactly. It was a very exciting artistic community.
Tafuri: It was a make-your-own-gig kind of thing.
Ehrlich: Yeah, there was a lot of grassroots sort of stuff. There was stuff in people's houses. At the same time that I meeting these new jazz practitioners — I didn't play much with Oliver and Julius when I was there, in fact, I didn't play with Julius it all; I met Julius and talked to him — it was people you haven't heard of. In other words, when something like BAG happens, it influences a lot of people, not all of whom become nationally or internationally known. At the same time, I began to also try to sit in at some of the established sort of jazz clubs in the black community where they would let you sit in. They had groups more modeled on the Blakey model — hard bop clubs, let's call 'em. And I had some friends I would get together to play with. One guy was David Garfield, who went on to play with Freddie Hubbard (I think he's now sort of a studio musician in Los Angeles) and he started to get some gigs — actually gigs — at these clubs. He was a sort of prodigious piano player. I'd go my his house a lot to play tunes. He had no interest in the new jazz stuff being done by the Human Arts Ensemble and Black Artists Group. So when I jumped in, I just tried to do as much as I could.
Tafuri: It's interesting, you know, because with the rich jazz and musical tradition of St Louis — and I feel like I'm fairly enlightened about this stuff — I think a lot of people don't really know about this alternative musical thing that was happening in St Louis.
Ehrlich: Well, people know especially about Miles and stuff like that. The AACM and the Black Artists Group were pretty singular within the context of the country at that time. They were these organizations that really drew people together. Obviously, when you look at the artists who came from there and their influence on the music, it's quite substantial. Let me now move ahead a bit... I took part in all of this, and it's what drew me [into music]. What I'm describing is an environment where I became conscious of being an artist, and poetry is what I first did very easily and somewhat prodigiously, [then] the music really took over. And I decided to go to music school and I got into [the] New England [Conservatory of Music] which had a jazz program with Jaki Byard, George Russell, Gunther Schuller was president, Ran Blake was there with his Third Stream department, and I did four years in Boston.
Tafuri: So this is like mid '70s?
Ehrlich: '73 to '77.
Tafuri: You had had lessons in school and then you had your "practical" lessons, but you previously had any "formal" musical training? Any theory, for example?
Ehrlich: I had had very good teachers. I studied with great teachers; I had no complaints there. I basically started to learn theory — I had a lot of holes in my knowledge when I went to the conservatory ... definitely. Just to jump ahead a bit: When I graduated from New England and came to New York, for example, the first gig I got, was with Chico Hamilton. And I got that because a guitarist named Marvin Horne, who I played with in St Louis and [who was] already in New York playing with Chico, called me and said 'Chico's auditioning sax players, come on by.' So the St Louis thing and everything — I met Braxton because he was rehearsing his orchestra at Bobo Shaw's loft; I went by and ended up going to Europe with Braxton. So, Boston was important, I did a lot of playing in my first year in New York with George Russell's big band who has those records on Black Saint that you know of or Soul Note — whatever —
Tafuri: Are you on those?
Ehrlich: It was years ago. I mean, we played the Village Vanguard.
Tafuri: There's that life recording there -
Ehrlich: And I'm on that. My first year in New York, I end up playing at the Village Vanguard.
Tafuri: [Laughs.] Not bad. Something I wanted to ask you about — and it was a story you told at the club [during the recording sessions at the Knitting Factory] one night before you played "The Painter." You were talking about how you played it for an audition to get into NEC...
Ehrlich: Ah, yeah, well, I didn't get into New England as a jazz player. I got in on clarinet; they rejected me from the jazz department. So, I sort of spent my freshman year working really hard to get into — New England at that time, the program was very be-bop oriented — so I spent the first year really working on learning to play changes — the "common practice of jazz," as it were.
Tafuri: Were you doing mostly academic stuff, or were you playing out as well?
Ehrlich: I started to play in Boston some, yeah. There were some places in Boston for students to get gigs. Over time I began to play a bunch with a guitarist, Michael Gregory Jackson, who I actually made a few records with and through whom I met Leo Smith and Pheeroan ak Laff and Anthony Davis. He was from New Haven, and they were sort of the new jazz scene from around New Haven, Connecticut.
Tafuri: After you finished in New England, you didn't come to New York for few years, did you?
Ehrlich: No, I came within about six months. I was going to stay in Boston, but the musicians I wanted to play with, they had all moved. Anyway, Tim Berne offered me a place in his loft. Tim had a loft in downtown Brooklyn, and I took it and came down. I remember it was New Year's Day 1978 when I came down to New York. Then I continued what's always been my path. You know, one thing: 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, you know? To just keep trying to make connections. At New England, I got exposed to a lot of music I hadn't heard that much of in St Louis which included actually a lot of early jazz. Actually a person who did a lot to turn me on to a lot of that was the pianist Anthony Coleman; we were undergrads together, and Anthony was an Ellington and early [jazz] music aficionado. At the same time, Anthony was one of only a few people who had heard the new music from the Midwest. He was into the Art Ensemble, he was into the Black Artist Group guys. He was very excited to me meet me, that I'd already played with these guys. So we were sort of a support team for each other. At the same time, I began to hear twentieth-century contemporary music — post-1945 stuff that I hadn't heard — and I got very excited by that.
Tafuri: That — the music and generally being in the Boston area — must have been collectively a mindblower for you.
Ehrlich: Yeah, there was a lot of performance of new music, a lot of contemporary music at New England under Gunther Schuller's leadership. Also, there began to be World Music program there. There was a great teacher there of Indian and World Music named Peter Rowe, and there was a scene of that in Boston — a place where I got exposed to a lot of music — hundred and hundreds of concerts while I was there. Just the on-going process, you know? I studied with Jaki Byard; I took private lessons with him. I took George Russell's classes on his Concept. I played George's music and Jaki's music in the big bands, and Jaki started his Apollo Stompers big band which he kept going for many, many years and which many players played in.
Tafuri: They did a couple on Soul Note.
Ehrlich: I did that with him in Boston and New York. It was that whole thing, you know.
Tafuri: Could we go back to Malinke for a minute? Especially since your new album's called "Malinke's Dance." You were mentioning earlier that Malinke helped you sort of separate out the parts of the music...
Ehrlich: Well, that was an interesting thing. I met him first when I was in ninth grade. Then I spent a summer — my freshman year back from the New England Conservatory — with a program in St Louis to do these live music concerts. Malinke taught in it, and I was a sort of teaching assistant for a big band. We'd do a concert every night in a different park. That summer, I spent almost every day hanging out and talking with Malinke. I did a lot of listening with him, as it were. That's when he talked about that. You know how, when you're younger, everything connects. I'm not sure it's so clear now, but I'm not sure everything does connect now.
Tafuri: It just connects in different ways now.
Ehrlich: Not-so-obvious ways.
Tafuri: Is that "parts of the music" discussion something you could share? Do you remember any of it?
Ehrlich: I think it's just like to not separate history and styles — to say 'I'm just into jazz' or 'I'm just into bebop' — but to listen to early blues, to listen to spirituals, to listen broadly within each culture and across cultures.
Tafuri: And then find your voice.
Ehrlich: To just really keep looking "lookin' around." Because it was perhaps easy to feel that you had to choose a style, you had to choose something, that it had to be one thing. It's hard to say. At the time, much was being talked to me by these "new jazz," avant garde guys about The Tradition — the tradition of jazz, the tradition of Black Music — the roots, the depth of it. Not in a strict sense. They were very open. None of this stuff is just one thing. Keep listening back into the past, keep listening around, don't separate the musics.
Tafuri: Which is really interesting because a lot of people who either don't get avant garde music or dismiss it don't really understand the importance of that continuity.
Ehrlich: At the same time, there were these people who going with some very distinct personal voices, but it was never presented to me that there was an ideology of that. At the same time, you were pushed to be an individual. The debate was never like, as it's often depicted, that they did not care. In a sense, it was opposed to what was already the jazz education thing which was this approach to jazz that to me always seemed to be a bit narrow and was based a lot out of the bop era. That's sort of where jazz became a bit codified. It was though these other guys that I hear a lot more broader things.
Tafuri: It seems to me that if you look at the history of jazz and you look at the people who've really made their mark and contributed to the genre, by its very nature, jazz is a music that's in process, it's moving ahead. It's taking something out of the tradition and building something new. I feel like you and some other artists are really in that tradition and in that process in that you're always trying to do something new, to extend what you're doing in the music, as opposed to the sort of "re-creationist" thing that's going on in some circles. I think it's significant that, at a very early age, you were already indoctrinated into that.
Ehrlich: It was very dynamic. I feel fortunate because I was around people making it. So, I didn't do a lot of learning from record per se. I did a lot more of a going-to-play-with-people type thing. 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. We've been talking a lot about my student days, but these recent years I've mostly been working as a leader or in cooperatives.
Tafuri: Speaking of your own groups, I'm wondering where the name "Traveler's Tales" came from.
Ehrlich: It's just one title I came up with for an album. You travel in your mind, and it seemed like sort of a description of what art is, to certain extent.
Tafuri: How do you think as an ensemble it fits in with the other groups you've had?
Ehrlich: Well, it's been one of the main instrumentions I've used — it's a crossroads between writing harmonically and writing linearly. Because there's not a piano or guitar, it lends itself to a certain linear approach, yet I tend to write a lot of three-part stuff, with the bass. It's been a very fertile place to combine composing and improvising.
Tafuri: One of the things we were talking about related to composing was the creative process, and where your sources of inspiration come from; one of the things I'm really interested in is your concept for that small group of getting the big sound that you get out of it. I don't know how to describe this — you touched on it, saying it's somewhere between linear writing and what I think of as horizontal —
Ehrlich: — exactly. More harmonic...
Tafuri: I guess one of the interesting things to me about that is how you get the fat sound that you do out of four instruments.
Ehrlich: Blend is really important. I love Tony; he's a great instrumentalist, with a great ear for a blend between the two horns. Bobby's got a great sense of dynamics — I think we get a sense of shaping. Also, the different tunes have a fair amount of variety in how they're voiced. That helps, too — there's not just one sound to the group. I tend to like both open and close writing, as far as the voicings of chords — it's all just trying to use the palette. I didn't use a lot of woodwinds on this recording, but the soprano and the flute do open up the upper range a bit.
Tafuri: One of the projects that you did that I really loved, even before I really knew you as a player, is the work that you did with the New York Composers' Orchestra, which I thought was a great group — I'd love to see it reactivated...
Ehrlich: Well, that was started by Wayne Horvitz and Robin Holcomb, and that was at a time when you could still get people to rehearse a big band for a door gig. I mean, people are still doing it, but at that time, it was easier to live in New York and put energy into something like this. They wrote a lot, the two of them, and then they asked other people to start writing, like Butch Morris and Bobby Previte and Lenny Pickett and Threadgill — they tried to become a venue for people to write, to make an opportunity. Fortunately, we were able to make the two recordings for New World, through their Countercurrents program. That was really a grass-roots thing again, inviting different composers — people would write all kinds of different things. Like a lot of the groups I've been involved in, the players were really thinking about how to play and understand different composers' approaches, while also as an improviser and an interpreter. It was just exciting. A lot of cool music happened, you were exposed to a lot of people's different approaches. I've played over the years in a lot of big bands, led by George Russell, Jaki Byard, Julius, Oliver, Muhal, Leo Smith, Roscoe Mitchell — I'm probably going to leave a few out even — Zorn's large pieces (both game pieces and things like Spillane), Sam Rivers' Rivbea Orchestra — I've been involved in a majority of the "new jazz" orchestra approaches. I toured with Braxton, I did Anthony Davis's opera — I've always been involved with these individual composers and their approaches to both small and large ensembles.
Tafuri: As a composer yourself, what do you think you bring to the process?
Ehrlich: For my own writing for big band, I learned a lot from that: how to use a lot of different strategies for setting up the connection between the improvising and the written material.
Tafuri: When you're a member of one of those groups, not necessarily contributing the compositions but as a player, what do think you bring to those groups?
Ehrlich: My aim is obviously to play the notes [laughter], and to get into the essence of the music — to help lift the music off the page.
Tafuri: As a composer who's worked in a lot different contexts, do you feel like that comes more easily to you, or that you have a better concept of how to do that?
Ehrlich: Over the years, I've felt like it's become even clearer to me — there's a great freedom in being a sideman, to some extent. Context is real important to me. What's this guy or girl going for? I never like soloists who just play the same way in any group they're in. I think you're entering a certain type of situation, and the leader/composer is asking you to help make a totality out of their music. That's what I ask of the people who play with me. How can we make this bigger than just us? It's wonderful when it happens.
Tafuri: Surely then, you go with a particular kind of willingness and openness in the right areas to the right sorts of cues, after doing this enough times...
Ehrlich: Well, you hope you have the skills to meet the demands that come up. It's how you approach it — playing with Julius, for example, he used so many styles in his writing that he would call on you to do all kinds of things. He was quite open to how you would approach it, as long as you did it with a good bit of incision and vigor and panache. There was a lot to dig your teeth into.
Tafuri: Did you ever find yourself woodshedding a style?
Ehrlich: His music for me has great specificity of style. Especially in his later years, he began to write more in historical styles. A gospel tune that would be so powerfully a gospel tune, or his country blues; with him, there was always a sense that there'd be stuff that would lead to very much non-referential things, but there's a lot of music that was very deeply specific. It required of me all my knowledge — it taxed all my skills.
Tafuri: That forces you to have to move to the next level, that's for sure.
Ehrlich: And at the same time, to do it with some creativity and passion, and not in a stylistic way. He used styles, but he wasn't looking for you to play in a stylistic way when you improvised.
Tafuri: It wasn't a re-creationist thing.
Ehrlich: No, not at all. And I think I've kept some of that on this record. It's got a lot of different moods on it — it's leaning towards the up and extroverted side of things.
Tafuri: One of the things I wanted to ask you while touching on Julius is about "Pigskin."
Ehrlich: "Pigskin" is a piece that I first learned because it was part of a suite on his big band recording on Elektra. As a melody, I think it's something he wrote fairly early, and 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 sort of eighth-note line. It's very striking. Right there you've got this interesting stylistic rub — right there he opens up a big window on things.
Tafuri: The word cinematic is too strong, but I found the piece very visual.
Ehrlich: Yeah, it's a very colorful melody. Yet it's also a traditional form — it's an A-A-B-A 32 bar tune. But within that, he's combined a couple broad elements, and it's very much a Julius composition. It's a great line, and we've always had a lot of fun with it. Everybody in the band immediately took to it. I brought it in once, and it just stuck.
Tafuri: I was saying, it's very picturesque, because I can see the guy running down the field...
Ehrlich: At some point he chose a title. [Laughs.] A reference to football. He was a football player and a huge football fan. I wouldn't say to the listener 'what you're gonna hear in this piece is football' —
Tafuri: I'm just saying myself! I don't that I would have come up with that if I didn't know that the title was "Pigskin", but...
Ehrlich: Let me tell you something — on the record, it's not titled "Pigskin", it's called "Motion as the Language of the Future." [Laughs.] So if I'd used that title, we wouldn't be talking about football, but I happened to know that his first title was "Pigskin," so I'm using that.