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Jazz Composer Tries Something New With 'A Trumpet In The Morning'


This is FRESH AIR. Marty Ehrlich is a jazz composer who plays clarinet and saxophones. But he doesn't play much on his latest album. He conducts his large ensemble performing his compositions. It's his first album devoted to his orchestral music.

Ehrlich grew up in the '60s in St. Louis, Missouri, where as a teenager he studied clarinet with members of the St. Louis Symphony. Through a weekend arts program he met the musicians, artists and writers who were part of the Black Artist Group, or BAG - including musicians Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake and J.D. Parran. Their influence pointed him in the direction of improvised music and led him to immerse himself in the history of jazz and its avant-garde edge.

After studying at the New England Conservatory of Music, he moved to New York in 1978 and played in ensembles led by avant-garde jazz musicians Muhal Richard Abrams and Anthony Braxton. Ehrlich teaches jazz and contemporary music at Hampshire College. The title track of his recent album, "A Trumpet in the Morning," is his musical setting for a poem by the late Arthur Brown, who Ehrlich heard back in his St. Louis days. The music was written as a concerto for J.D. Parran, who's featured on saxophone and also reads the poem.


GROSS: Marty Ehrlich, welcome to FRESH AIR. We haven't heard the poem part yet. We will very soon. But the poem itself is a poem, I think about death and about rising and being like a trumpet in the morning. And it's so interesting the way you've worked "Reveille" in as an instrumental theme of this and, you know, in a really interesting way.

MARTY EHRLICH: Well, Terry, that's really interesting because I, till this moment, never thought that that's what I had done. I basically came up with this one little motive - (Singing) Da da da da da de dat. Da da da da da de dat.

I must have sung that 20 times to the trumpet players.


EHRLICH: Because I was really thinking of this blues phrase. But, you know, it's all there in the big gumbo stew. And you're right, it has the same thing, and I never thought of that

GROSS: So I want to play the passage with - one of the passages with the poem and it.


GROSS: So tell us about this poem and how you were introduced to it.

EHRLICH: I heard this poem, I think, when I was quite young - when I was still in high school in St. Louis, Missouri. I was very active on what - this sort of underground poetry scene in St. Louis. I was a sort of neophyte poet. I went to lots of informal poetry readings. And I went - and I heard Arthur Brown read the poem one time at least.

GROSS: What spoke to you about the poem?

EHRLICH: You know, it just grabbed me I think in a very visceral way. It's a deeply African-American poem in its references to the entire history here in America and its many references to sort of the blues continuum. The opening four lines are from a spiritual. And in W.E.B. Du Bois' "Souls of Black Folks," that very, you know, seminal work, he starts every chapter with a quote from a spiritual and gives actually a few notes and this is one of them.

GROSS: Well, let's hear your setting for the poem.


GROSS: And this is from the title track of Marty Ehrlich's album, "A Trumpet in the Morning."


J.D. PARRAN: You can bury me in the East. You can bury me in the West. Bury me in the East. You can bury me in the West. I'm going to rise up. Rise up. Be a trumpet. Rise up. Be a trumpet in the morning. You can bury me in the East. You can bury me in the West. Bury me in the East. You can bury me in the West. I'm going to rise up. Rise up. Be a trumpet. Going to rise up, be a trumpet in the morning.

GROSS: That's an excerpt of "A Trumpet in the Morning," the title track from the latest album by Marty Ehrlich, who is a composer and clarinetist. I want to jump ahead to a section in which what I assume is the whole band is singing.


GROSS: OK. So how hard was it to convince everyone to sing this part? Was it hard?

EHRLICH: Not at all.


EHRLICH: I think they really liked it.


GROSS: Well, I like hearing it. Yeah.

EHRLICH: And, I mean, we were a little concerned about how to record it, to be honest, because you're used to hearing singing with very close mics, and we were in a very large room. But we decided not to try to do anything, you know, fancy in the studio. We just had them sing right there, where they were sitting. And that's what you hear.

GROSS: OK. So this is another section from Marty Ehrlich's composition "A Trumpet in the Morning," the title track of his latest album.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) You can bury me in the east. You can bury me in the west. I'm going to rise up, be a trumpet. I'm going to rise up, be a trumpet in the morning, in the morning. You can bury me in the east. You can bury me in the west. I'm going to rise up, be a trumpet. I'm going to rise up, be a trumpet in the morning, in the morning.

GROSS: That's a passage from "A Trumpet in the Morning," the title track from Marty Ehrlich's latest album. Marty Ehrlich is a composer and musician. He plays clarinets and saxophone. So, let's close with another piece of music.


GROSS: And this is actually the opening of your album. It's called "Prelude: Agbekor Translations." So, tell us about this piece.

EHRLICH: It's a translation in that I basically have taken the six rhythms in a somewhat western notation of - from a traditional piece, a very well-known piece by the - I don't know if I'm pronouncing it. It's E-W-E - Ewe Tribe. That's often taught here in America. And I wrote my own melodic material on it. It's not a traditional piece, but it does use the interlocking rhythms of the African drum choir.

Up in Amherst, there's a - it's called the Five College System, and for many years at Mt. Holyoke College, there's been a wonderful West African drumming ensemble. And we put my jazz improvised orchestra with the drumming ensemble, and we had, like, you know, 30 students in a room all playing this piece. And then, actually, we had a master Guinean drummer visiting at one point who teaches at Tufts, and he came in and even played it with us.

So, it came out of something that I wrote for that context, and I really felt really close to the piece. Last couple recordings of mine I've been thinking of this idea of a procession, and it builds up from just the cowbell to, you know, each voice brings in. But - so that's where this piece came from. It's a really simple thing, but I think I got something right with it.

GROSS: Well, Marty Ehrlich, thank you so much for talking with us.

EHRLICH: You're very welcome.


GROSS: Marty Ehrlich's latest album is called "A Trumpet in the Morning." Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews a new book about a 19th-century American missionary school which had the goal of evangelizing the world. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.