Making It Big


The first time I put on Marty Ehrlich’s News on the Rail, I thought for a moment I was hearing a sleek, forward-looking big band. Turns out there are only three horns: Ehrlich’s alto or clarinet; James Zollar’s trumpet or flügelhorn and Howard Johnson’s baritone, bass clarinet, or tuba. Ehrlich makes them sound like more by scoring them far apart or in rounds and by relying on Zollar and Johnson’s ensemble proficiency. These are conventional arranger’s gambits that recall Wayne Shorter’s ’60s Blue Notes, but Ehrlich heightens the sense of an orchestra lying in wait by varying the backgrounds behind solos—tuba walks alongside the wailing alto on the funky, semi-harmolodic “Hear You Say,” for example, and then pianist James Weidman switches to melodica behind Zollar’s plungered trumpet—and by avoiding tedious strings of them. Ehrlich himself is the standout soloist, and whether on alto or clarinet, his approach to each of his eight tunes is as different as the tunes themselves—lyrical and keen on “Keeper of the Flame,” boppish and zigzaggy on “Erica,” angular and pushing on “Seeker’s Delight.” Ehrlich is famous for being underrated, the way Clark Terry once was. As a self-effacing sideman with Julius Hemphill and Muhal Richard Abrams in the 1980s, he established himself as one of their savviest interpreters. News on the Rail shows the lessons he’s learned from them as a composer and suggests he’s his own savviest interpreter as well.