Marty Ehrlich's Dark Woods Ensemble

Just Before the Dawn

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The second Darkwoods Ensemble recording for multi-woodwind instrumentalist/composer Ehrlich is a true winner, and a progressive jazz icon for the '90s. To paraphrase Ehrlich's own description of his music "Sounds startle the air... birds call across as if the light won't come... these sounds will find a center or the center will change... metal hued breath across strings... birds in the darkness, waiting for no one... open the door, wake these sounds, just before the dawn." Ehrlich is assisted in this quest by French horn player Vincent Chancey, bassist Mark Helias, cellist Erik Friedlander, and percussionist Don Alias.

At their most free and uninhibited, the group digs in on "Side By Side" with Ehrlich's clarinet setting off some unison lines and a cello-bass-conga groove bridge, or there's the scatter shot improv, prompted by serious bass clarinet and goofy French horn, with terpsichorean tuneful unison during "Dance #1." Elephantine clarion calls from Chancey with other animals chattering on a freely associated "Underground/Overground" is a prelude for swooping bird sounds via the strings and quite soulful unison horns in this segmented piece. Also highly developed is the risky "Flight" starting as a whack waltz, going to multi-faceted lighthouse beam spotted melodies, and an intense, free bridge that suddenly stops, making way for introspective, collective meditations. As complexly written is "Thickets," with haunting cello, ethnic percussion, minimalist, repeated clarinet and NYC urgent traffic motifs. A more mournful bass/cello/alto sax informs "Mudpie Anthem" with additional chamber-like counterpoint. The most tuneful asides are the wood flute/percussion Afro-Cuban groove of "Spirit Of J.A.H." (for Julius Hemphill), the heavy bass/bass clarinet ostinato of "Eliahu," and the lilting, beautiful, tuneful flute/plucked cello/shaker percussion beaut "The Folksinger."

This music needs to be heard by all who love a good joust from improvising musicians who fully understand shadings, nuance, power and glory. Highly recommended, and a high point in Ehrlich's substantial discography.

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