The names alone recommend this CD. Multi-woodwind maven Marty Ehrlich has long been a fixture of New York’s downtown avant-garde circle. Peter Erskine was a superstar fusion drummer in the 70s and 80s and remains a very important jazz voice, steadily developing his capabilities as a straight-ahead/free player and composer. Michael Formanek, a quiet presence on the straight-ahead scene for many years, is becoming increasingly known as a top-flight player and leader.
This heavy-hitting trio is known as Relativity, and its debut release is alternately meditative and explosive. The idiom is free jazz, but the program is exceptionally varied and well-paced, demonstrating that a wide variety of feels and moods can fall under the “free” umbrella. Formanek’s “Incident at Harpham Flat” opens the disc with a hip melodic figure doubled by bass and sax which takes flight as a steadily rolling, groove-based improvisation. Erskine’s “Eloi Lament” begins with hypnotic rhythmic counterpoint and eases into medium swing, reminding me of Dave Holland’s late 80s work with Steve Coleman and Jack DeJohnette.
“Lucky Life” by Ehrlich and “Relativo” by Erskine both hint at calypso, but the former is an extended exploration while the latter is a short-and-sweet melodic snapshot. Solid swing tempos prevail on Ehrlich’s “The Pivot” and Formanek’s “Holy Waters,” both of which feature the strongest bass solos on the record. “Round the Four Corners” and “Jiggle the Handle,” by Ehrlich and Formanek respectively, illustrate the trio’s mellower side, although Formanek’s tune gets into some free tenor screaming once the laid-back 5/4 melody is stated.
“Taglioni,” by the late Don Grolnick, was played by a larger ensemble on Grolnick’s Weaver of Dreams (Blue Note, 1989). Relativity’s version is an elongated yet stripped-down reading of the rubato melody, giving the composition a striking clarity and elegance. And closing the album is Formanek’s beautiful “In A Child’s Eyes,” the main groove of which is built around a bar of three and a bar of five. The resulting count of eight gives the ear a fleeting illusion of 4/4 time despite the odd meter.
Ehrlich, Erskine, and Formanek each bring a different compositional voice to the session, but they manage to tie it all together with compelling and compatible instrumental approaches. It’s a satisfying brew.