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Eric Erhardt: A Better Fate

Dave Wayne By

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Unlike a lot of jazz artists hawking a debut recording these days, reed/woodwind multi-instrumentalist Eric Erhardt is not fresh out of music school. He has been around for a while, playing for two decades in Broadway pit bands and with trad jazzers Ken Peplowski and Artie Shaw. A student of Dave Liebman, Erhardt's own musical interests are quite far afield of those of his past employers. He calls what he's created Acoustic Fusion, and if the 70's definition of fusion music is taken as gospel, then the label fits well. Though Erhardt's original compositions are highly informed by Latin, funk, rock, and odd-meter polyrhythms, they are never dense or aggressive. Instead, a distinctly jazz-like lightness and finesse prevails, leaving room for the intricacies of the leader's detailed compositions. Points of reference would include the recent work of artists such as trumpeters Kenny Wheeler and Ingrid Jensen, Either/Orchestra, and saxophonist Dave Pietro.

Erhardt's soprano sound is broad yet reedy, somewhat like that of Liebman's, while his clarinet combines a rich, warm timbre with impeccable technique. Traces of both Shaw and Don Byron can be heard in his playing. He's also assembled an incredibly talented backing band. Russ Johnson, Sebastian Noelle, Linda May Han Oh, Dan Willis, and Mike Davis are first-call players on the New York scene. Pianist Nick Paul and percussionist James Shipp are perhaps less familiar, but no less accomplished. Together, this ensemble rises to the challenges posed by Erhardt's compositions which, in the hands of lesser musicians, could sound forced and claustrophobic. Instead, a sense of ease and grace prevails here. Guitarist Sebastian Noelle, in particular, imaginatively percolates through the dense latticework of drums, percussion, piano, and interwoven contrapuntal horn lines by playing linear, almost African-sounding single-line parts that both contrast and emphasize his musical surroundings.

The tunes on A Better Fate are well thought-out, almost to the point of fussiness. "Liddle Rittle" opens with Shipp's popping djembe, which is joined by piano and bass on the offbeats, and then Noelle's snaky guitar line. The bass/piano ostinato becomes the basis for the theme—a knotty, bebop-ish affair played with breezy authority by Erhardt and Johnson. The rhythm section splits the difference between swung and straight feels.

The title track opens with a free-ish dialogue between Erhardt and Johnson before settling into an asymmetric Latin groove that ping-pongs back and forth between 4/4 and 13/4. "Powwow Now" is buoyed by Paul's insistent, Steve Reich-ian piano which gets cut off, almost incongruously, by the tune's carefree, jazzy melody. "Ten Years," the album's longest and most raucous piece, is also one of its best, mainly because it serves as a blowing tune for Noelle, Johnson, Paul, and Erhardt—each of whom execute brilliant solos. Here, Erhardt's dialogue with Davis is especially noteworthy.

Erhardt is a superb multi-reed player whose compositions meld melodies and harmonies redolent of late 20th Century pre-free progressive jazz and modern classical music with the complexly syncopated rhythms of various ethnic musics. All in all, A Better Fate is a first-rate debut.

Track Listing: Liddle Rittle; Ambivalence; A Better Fate; Powwow Now; Ten Years; Dance Afar; Not Like Before; Tyler Park.

Personnel: Eric Erhardt: tenor saxophone, clarinet, flute; Russ Johnson: trumpet, flugelhorn; Sebastian Noelle: guitar; Mike Davis: drums; Linda Oh: bass; Nick Paul: piano; James Shipp: percussion; Dan Willis: soprano saxophone, oboe (4, 8).

Title: A Better Fate | Year Released: 2013 | Record Label: Tapestry Records

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