Live review: Marty Ehrlich and Michael Formanek bring a perfect balance between dissonance and melody

The upstairs room at Bertha's is a hidden gem among Baltimore's live-music venues. Half the size of the similarly jewel-like An Die Musik, this former dance studio on the second-and-a-half floor boasts junk-store art, fake ivy, and white Christmas lights along its white brick walls. It's so intimate that a small group can play without amplification and without a stage, standing so close to the audience that those in the front row can't stretch out their legs.

That's how two major figures in modern jazz—New York reed player Marty Ehrlich and Baltimore bassist Michael Formanek—performed Thursday. They presented a 75-minute medley of free improvisation with only two pauses. Ehrlich switched from clarinet to flute to alto sax to soprano sax and then back to clarinet and alto, while Formanek alternated between plucked and bowed double bass. This provided a great deal more sonic variety than you'd expect from a duo gig.

The results were far more tuneful than most efforts at spontaneous invention on the bandstand. Dissonant, frantic passages always resolved their tension in lovely melodic themes. Ehrlich might talk through his horn or slap it like a drum; Formanek might slide his fingers in search of quarter tones; but sooner or later the music found its way back to the pleasure principle. The dissonance wouldn't have been as effective without the melody, but it's also true that the melody wouldn't have worked half as well without the dissonance.

Formanek and Ehrlich perform again tonight, Friday, Feb. 27, this time with the Peabody Jazz Orchestra, at the Peabody Institute's Joe Byrd Hall at 7:30 p.m. They will be performing music from Ehrlich's first-ever big-band album, "Trumpet in the Morning." The 75-minute recording is credited to the Marty Ehrlich Large Ensemble, featuring 24 different musicians, as many as 19 playing at one time, including such notables as pianist Uri Caine, pianist James Weidman, drummer Matt Wilson, baritone saxophonist Howard Johnson, and Baltimore bassist Drew Gress.

The 23-minute title track is Ehrlich's setting of a terrific poem by little-known St. Louis writer Arthur Brown. It begins, naturally enough, with a trumpet fanfare. J.D Parran, once a mentor to a teenaged Ehrlich in Missouri, not only takes solos on soprano and bass saxophones but also recites the poem, including lines like, "I've been all night/ in the dew/ john-revelated in the marshy bottoms/ lazarused in the crook of a willow whittled/ a gospel-boat from a simple reed/ launched that skiff in the spittle/ of a mule's jaw." The result is an African-American tall tale, a jazz symphony, a Mississippi River fantasia.

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