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Marty Ehrlich comes full circle - with New Music Circle

Marty Ehrlich
Beacon archives | 2013

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 3, 2013: When Marty Ehrlich was attending University City High School in the early 1970s, he played saxophone after moving to that instrument from clarinet in junior high. More than 40 years after his high school graduation in 1972, Ehrlich is still playing sax, clarinet and a variety of other woodwind instruments – earning critical acclaim for his work.

Ehrlich has earned a Guggenheim Fellowship in composition and released more than 25 recordings as a leader – working with groups that range from duos to 24-piece orchestras. He’s also appeared on more than a hundred other recordings with a who’s who of the jazz world – ranging from Julius Hemphill and Andrew Hill to Muhal Richard Abrams and John Zorn.

Now Ehrlich is returning to St. Louis to perform this Friday, Oct. 4 at the opening concert of New Music Circle’s 2013-14 season.

For Ehrlich, Friday’s concert at the Kranzberg Arts Center closes a connection with New Music Circle that began quite a while ago.

“I remember going to New Music Circle concerts when I was in high school,” Ehrlich said during a recent telephone conversation from his home in Manhattan. “There was a great musical energy in St. Louis at that time. There was a lot of experimentalism going on, and it was an incredibly heady time for me. It seemed like artistically, everything was open and on the table. I reveled in it.”

Lessons in avant garde

The early 1970s were a memorable time in St. Louis – especially for musicians. The Black Artists Group (BAG), which began here in 1967, was still functioning until 1972, and Ehrlich’s first recording at the age of 17 was with the Human Arts Ensemble, organized by BAG member Charles “Bobo” Shaw, and titled “Under The Sun.”

According to Ehrlich, his entry into the avant-garde jazz scene in St. Louis actually came about through poetry – and a class for teens.

“It was a weekend arts program called MECA,” Ehrlich said. “And it was taught by Malinké (Elliott, a writer and theater director). I was already into poetry and had attended River Styx events that included poets Michael Castro and Donald Finkel. I was really bad at drama, so what I remember most about those MECA classes was that Malinké would play a John Coltrane album afterward, and I would just stand there listening to it. Finally he gave it to me!”

Ehrlich moved away from St. Louis after high school, to the New England Conservatory, and soon found his way to New York City, where he began working with composer George Russell and toured with drummer Chico Hamilton.

But Ehrlich’s St. Louis musical connections remained strong. One of his first New York performances was with BAG member and World Saxophone Quartet co-founder Julius Hemphill.

Ehrlich eventually began leading his own groups in the 1980s, but his ties to Hemphill – and his respect for his music – remained strong. Ehrlich was a member of Hemphill’s Sextet from 1990. And after Hemphill’s death in 1995, Ehrlich became the musical director of the Sextet and kept it going.

As an artist in residence at Harvard University in 2003, Ehrlich composed and recorded “The Long View,” a tribute to Hemphill. And he continues to present a concert program called “Julius Hemphill: A Composer Portrait”

“BAG was a major gathering of artists from many disciplines,” Ehrlich said, “and many of the people who were involved became my colleagues throughout my career. Only later did I realize my interests and passion were channeled into working out the implications of what I was exposed to at that time.

“People like Julius were trying to work in areas without boundaries and as a result, created their own context. That’s always been my goal.”

For his New Music circle performance at the Kranzberg, Ehrlich will be playing with his group, the Rites Quartet: James Zollar on trumpet, Michael Formanek on bass and drummer Michael Sarin.

Ehrlich’s schedule certainly doesn’t slow down after his St. Louis performance. He has a new recording for a 24-piece jazz orchestra, “A Trumpet In the Morning,” set for release in November. In addition, he’s scheduled to perform a residency from Nov. 12-17 at John Zorn’s East Village club, the Stone.

“My new recording is named after a poem by St. Louisan Arthur Brown,” Ehrlich said. It’s narrated by J.D. Parran, who also is originally from St. Louis and BAG.

“And for my residency at the Stone, I’ll be presenting 10 different ensembles over those six nights. But right now, I’m really excited about coming back to St. Louis to play my music.”

55th NMC season

Jeremy Kannapell, program coordinator for New Music Circle, is also very pleased that NMC’s 55th season will begin with a concert by Ehrlich.

“We couldn't think of a better or more appropriate opener than Marty Ehrlich to celebrate the new season,” states Kannapell in a recent conversation. “And Marty is coming in to St. Louis a day early (Oct. 3) to participate in a few events. He will be visiting University City High School to meet and work with students in the jazz department.

“Later that evening he participates in a talk led by Dennis Owsley of KWMU's Jazz Unlimited at the Regional Arts Commission. The talk is at 7 p.m. and will be free and open to the public. Snacks and beverages will be served, and it will be a great chance to hear Marty discuss his work in-depth and say hello.”

In terms of the rest of the NMC season series, Kannapell emphasizes the diversity of music in the lineup.

“The season program is a great representation of the broad range of interests everyone at NMC pools from,” he adds. “it ranges from modern composition to free-jazz, to super abstract electronic music, film and video.

“And that diversity extends to the range of our venues this season, like CAM, the Mad Art Gallery, the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, the Kranzberg, and William A Kerr Foundation. We spend a lot of time trying to match concerts with spaces they would translate well in.”

For more information about the complete NMC 2013-14 concert series, go to  www.newmusiccircle.org

The 2013-14 season

• William Parker: In Order To Survive Quintet

Oct. 25, Mad Art Gallery

• Olivia Block (electronic sound), Sandra Gibson and Luis Recoder (live film / extended projections)

Nov. 15, Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis Beacon

• Joshua Abrams’ Natural Information Society

Feb. 25, Joe’s Café

• Claire Chase Quintet

April 4, Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts

• New Music Circle Showcase: Ingrid Laubrock and Tom Rainey (duo), Tyler Damon, Nathan Cook

May 20, venue TBA

Terry Perkins is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. He has written for the St. Louis Beacon since 2009. Terry's other writing credits in St. Louis include: the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the St. Louis American, the Riverfront Times, and St. Louis magazine. Nationally, Terry writes for DownBeat magazine, OxfordAmerican.org and RollingStone.com, among others.