The Fresh Sound of Singing Reeds

NYC Virtuosos Marty Ehrlich and Ned Rothenberg deliver.

My admiration and appreciation for concert promoter Bonnie Wright’s Fresh Sound series continues to soar -- there simply isn’t anything like it -- and the April 2 duet performance by multi-reed virtuoso’s Marty Ehrlich and Ned Rothenberg upped the ante of previous highlights in astonishing and transformative fashion.

I came very close to missing this concert. Spending five hours in an airplane (90 minutes of them stranded on the tarmac in Houston due to computer problems), then discovering that my luggage had been lost left me in no mood to extend my sleep deprivation. But when was I ever going to get the opportunity to experience the music of these two masters again? Reluctantly, I dragged my sorry self to the Loft at UCSD.

One of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

Ehrlich and Rothenberg opened the evening with a Bb clarinet duet titled "Warm Tremor," and I was immediately drawn into the fascinating sonic contrasts between the two. Wrapping around each other with dark swirls, pad-popping and keening vocalizations, each reedman alternated between free-flowing lines and a grounding ostinato. Ehrlich then played a solo feature dedicated to Bob Dylan, "Lay Down a Weary Tune," and the degree of nuance he elicited -- slinky arcs from simmering chocolate to strangled yelping and plaintive vibrato -- erased all weariness from my consciousness.

Both of these cats are tone sculptors nonpareil, Ehrlich, in my mind, extending the Eric Dolphy tradition of intervallic melodicism, while Rothenberg seems to be coming from the Anthony Braxton field of microstructures and coruscating timbral acidity.

On his first solo exposition, Rothenberg wound his alto saxophone through undulating long-tones, assembling uninterrupted fractal collages through circular breathing, gradient degrees of multiphonics into a breathtaking showcase. Especially gratifying was the duet on "Bright Canto," a quirky ballet of aggressive counterpoint anchored by Ehrlich’s foghorn bass clarinet, and an improvisation inspired by a preconcert warmup at Wright’s Mission Hills home dubbed "Channel the Gorge," which featured Rothenberg’s ghostly shakuhachi flute hovering above Ehrlich’s oversize licorice stick. It all came to a boil on Ehrlich’s tribute to the ailing Arthur Blythe, "12 for Arthur." Ehrlich strapped on an alto saxophone while Rothenberg manned the bass clarinet for a wonderfully swinging romp that evoked the Middle Eastern vibe of Blythe’s "Odessa," from the shattering Lennox Avenue Breakdown album.

The concert concluded with Rothenberg’s nod to the iconoclastic Albert Ayler, "Future Folk," which balanced the honey with the cider as each musician explored parallel conversations in slightly tangential dimensions. It had the reverential sonority of an elegy on the surface -- with a dark current of turmoil gurgling just beneath.

This amazing collaboration will not soon be forgotten by this weary traveler.

 Robert Bush is a freelance jazz writer who has been exploring the San Diego improvised music scene for more than 30 years.

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