After his previous release, 2013's magnificent big-band disc A Trumpet in the Morning (New World Records), it was unclear whether multi-instrumentalist Marty Ehrlich would continue down the path of large-scale composition or return to the small-to-medium-sized ensembles he's used for most of his recorded output over the years. Well, he's gone small all right: all the way down to a trio, something he's not done since 2000, when he teamed up with Andrew Cyrille and Mark Dresser on C/D/E (Jazz Magnet). This time he's working with bassist John Hébert and drummer Nasheet Waits, and the album's title, Trio Exaltation, is entirely appropriate, given the plenitude of dynamic and joyous music it features.
Hébert and Waits have a good deal of intersecting history, found most recently on Michael Attias's Nerve Dance, from 2017 (Clean Feed). But for their shared link to Ehrlich, we can go back to the Andrew Hill Sextet, when all three worked in the early 2000s with that uniquely enigmatic pianist and composer. It's entirely fitting, therefore, that Hill's composition "Dusk" kicks off the album, as the piece's sinuous melody and controlled freedom establish the template for the trio's modus operandi. When Hébert's ostinato locks in with Waits' strolling toms, the groove feels unshakeable, and yet the music still possesses a sense of yearning and a desire to push free of rhythmic constraintsdue in large part to Ehrlich's soaring alto saxophone, which is perfect in capturing both the mystery and the power of Hill's vision.
Other tracks bring Ehrlich's tuneful instincts to the forenot to mention his technical facility on a range of instruments, including bass clarinet, shown convincingly on "Dance No. 5," as a sing-able melody (and another engaging ostinato by Hébert) driving the piece with an irresistible momentum. On "Spirit of JAH No. 2" Waits' Caribbean-infused rhythms inspire an infectious duo with Ehrlich, this time on wooden flutes; and the clarion purity of Ehrlich's clarinet on "Reading the River" sustains the record's most swinging track, with a seemingly endless progression of lengthy, flowing lines.
While the music is undeniably appealing when it's rooted in strong rhythm and groove, it is just as affecting when the three move out into less-charted rhythmic territory. Case in point is "Senhor P.C.," dedicated to Clean Feed label impresario Pedro Costa, where Hébert's superb arco playing melds with Ehrlich's freer musings on alto and Waits's gradual ascension of intensity in a gripping five-minute burst of energy. And even more impressive is the album's tribute to Ornette Coleman, "June 11th, 2015In Memoriam." With an emotional arc that is both haunting and liberating at the same time, the trio expands on a poignant melody with a controlled passion and fury that only find their full release at the piece's cathartic finish.
Ehrlich's compositions have always been rich enough to warrant the treatment a larger ensemble can provide. But his improvisational skills as an instrumentalist are also prodigious, so it's a treat to have such a terrific recording on which to hear them. Trio Exaltation is a triumphant release for all three players, and one that should earn abundant accolades.
Dusk; Yes Yes; Senhor P.C.; Dance No. 5; Stone; June 11th, 2015 – In Memoriam: Ornette Coleman; Sometimes; The Arc of
the Oar; Spirit of JAH No. 2; Reading the River.
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