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Alan Ferber: Developing String Theory

By Published: June 28, 2010

AAJ: Looking back at that early period, were there any mentors or individuals that helped with your career development?

AF: There were a couple of guys—the first would have to be the tenor player Matt Otto

Matt Otto
Matt Otto
sax, tenor
who really helped me out for the first several months in New York. When I first moved to New York to this apartment he had helped me find, it was just a brutal apartment. You could touch the walls with your outstretched arms—I mean, I am not kidding, it was that small. You put a futon down and that's pretty much most of the area of the apartment. There was no cooking area; I mean, are you serious? This is not living—there was one bathroom on the floor and six apartments. This is not a space to live!

I didn't really last long in that initial apartment and ended up going to Matt Otto's apartment—he lived in Brooklyn—and I lived basically in his kitchen for two weeks [until] I was able to find an apartment in his building. And all the while, he was just really supportive. He liked my music a lot and always had really positive things to say. He got me my first gig—we played at this really, really dive-y bar called the White Rose on 29th and 9th in Manhattan. It's gone now. It [was] one of those places where you have to get buzzed into the bathroom. It was one of those really rough places, but it was great. It's somewhere where I met a lot of really great musicians. We had a weekly Wednesday night gig there for almost a year. So those were some of my first playing experiences. It was exciting just to play, not matter how dive-y the bar.

AAJ: That raises a themes in jazz history of the direct transfer from mentor to mentor; the very personal relationships that help drive the development and direction of the music. This is often talked about in terms of almost esoteric transference, sometimes comparable to what takes place in many Eastern religions based on the concept of direct transfer versus scripture. Do you think that is still a part of the jazz movement for the younger generation of musicians?

AF: I absolutely think that is the case. Probably my first significant mentor in terms of someone who was older and took me under their wing for awhile was Charlie Hunter
Charlie Hunter
Charlie Hunter

guitar, 8-string
. I started playing with him in 2001 and played pretty consistently for him for about a year. Just being on the road with him—all music aside for now—to experience how a tour was run, how the whole operation works on the road, booking hotels, flights, food, all the logistics, the whole nine yards. He had it all together and still does.

Musically, of course, he is an amazing guy with a very strong personality and a strong voice musically, a fully-formed musical identity. Traveling with him, coupled with playing music with him night after night, helped me discover who I was as a musician and what it took to find oneself as a musician.

AAJ: That emphasizes again the idea of a direct transference—it's not that you take on their musical identity but they help you figure out your path forward. If I understand you correctly, you're saying that is still a special part of the jazz tradition, or do you think that exists in all musical traditions?

AF: I think that is something that is special about jazz. I think it can also exist in the classical world, if someone has a teacher that can personally sculpt that player and inspire that player to find their own style or voice.

AAJ: Why do you think that is so much part of the jazz tradition? Historically, before there were jazz schools, you couldn't major in jazz so it made sense to have individual mentors and individual groups that would draw in the next generation. But now we have a strong jazz education structure. Why is mentorship still so important to jazz?

AF: It's something that is hard to talk about; it comes from a real strong, dominant personality. They give younger musicians an opportunity to play with them. And for younger musicians, they hold these more established musicians with such a huge amount of respect, it becomes hard not to adopt their ways for a while. Why is that unique to jazz? I think it probably has something to do with the fact that jazz is such a malleable music. Consequently, it just allows for individuals to find something unique to how they approach that music. If [a] younger musician has an opportunity to be under an older musician's wing, it can really be a formidable, life-changing experience.

AAJ: Your latest recording is very composed; the opening track could have been a traditional classic piece. How do you balance that type of composed feel with improvisation, as you're both composing and ultimately performing and composing a piece?

AF: My goal is to inspire the improvisers. [However], on this particular album there are two or three cuts that have absolutely no improvisation at all. On this record, I sort of switched the relationship around. The first track of the album is completely composed, but it is composed based on a completely improvised piano solo by Keith Jarrett

Keith Jarrett
Keith Jarrett
. It is just one of the most moving pieces of music I have ever heard, from his record Always Let Me Go (ECM, 2001).

For that piece, I wanted to capture the spur-of-the-moment feel that he gets from solo piano performance. I think ultimately it came off more as an orchestral feel— which is fine. Often when I am writing, the composition takes on a life of its own.

The other fully-composed piece, "In Memoriam," is a solo guitar piece. Because the album is with strings, I wanted to feature the strings more on the cuts with something that is unique for a jazz record, not something you would expect. Hopefully, it would draw the listener in.

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