Marty Ehrlich's genius lies within an ability to reinvent his music while retaining his unique voice on the alto saxophone. A vocal quality, the slight human cry of his tone, and the angular but not obtuse lines of his melodies have made Ehrlich a true original, and for his followers, immediately recognizable. While Ehrlich refuses to stand pat in the size or depth of his ensembles, the four-piece setting has been a constant over the years, but in specific terms of favorite players, the Rites Quartet may be the finest he has ever assembled. Longtime drummer Pheeroan AkLaff joins cellist (not bassist) Erik Friedlander and trumpeter James Zollar to play new music that is consistently scintillating. Zollar's pithy, lithe, but sinewy lines work so well with Ehrlich's sound, while rhythmically and harmonically, Friedlander cannot be eclipsed by anyone on the cello. The resultant progressive jazz within and out of the jazz tradition, should keep listeners on their toes through this grand experience of creating absorbing, truly new music. The rich harmonies and spiky accents always associated with Ehrlich's music are extant from the opener "Rites Rhythms," with groove cello from Friedlander and a solid trumpet solo by Zollar. Ornette Coleman's tandem lyricism is referenced in "Dung," not standardized, but expounded upon in a bop notion, while Friedlander's cello takes center stage during the romantic reverence of "Some Kind of Prayer" and the bouncy, jig-flavored waltz "On the One," where Ehrlich's lyrical, tangent-busting alto departs into the stratosphere. But there is much more on the second half of the date, as the quartet ups the ante further for the somber undertones and wonderfully quirky bop funk of "Slices of Light," very reminiscent of AkLaff and Ehrlich's past groundbreaking work with guitarist Michael Gregory Jackson. The juxtaposed blues bop of "Song for Tomorrow," and dark, diffuse, stark, hauntingly resonant, free "From Strength to Strength" are preludes for a mighty version of Julius Hemphill's "Dogon A.D.," a definitive hip and funky creative crossover in 11/8 time. There's little more to describe or critique about this masterful progressive jazz made by some of the best players in the business, all at the top of their game, making some of the most remarkable music of their careers from start to finish. Where certain political and social areas in the world must change, we should all be appreciative that Ehrlich stays the course. This is a must-have item, and without question, one of the very best jazz recordings of 2009.
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AllMusic Review by Michael G. Nastos