Alan Ferber Nonet Plus Strings at Jazz Gallery on December 16, 2010
The Jazz Gallery
New York City, USA
December 16, 2010
Despite having fewer members than an average big band, the concept of a nonet plus an eight-piece string section seems like a huge undertaking. Even the sight of violins and cellos in front of the large small group in the cozy confines of New York City's Jazz Gallery seemed overwhelming. Perhaps it's because the suffix "with strings" conjures up images of a huge studio orchestra being conducted by a classical conductor, providing lush, cinematic underscoring for a jazz legend like Clifford Brown or Charlie Parker. The strings wouldn't be integrated into thought process of the jazz artist, however; it would all be put together in the editing stage of the recording. The 17-piece band that trombonist/composer Alan Ferber assembled pursued, instead, a different kind of creative process. With this ensemble, strings, horns and rhythm section alike all coalesced into a singular, dramatic vision.
The function of the string section was limited only to Ferber's imagination. The benefit of hearing a string section in person is huge; jazz audiences tend to forget the power and otherworldly beauty that even an eight-piece section can provide (not to mention orchestra strings are usually not seated facing the audience, at a distance of 20 feet). For example, when performing Ferber's arrangement of Björk's "Hyperballad," the acoustic resonance of hearing the Icelandic artist's typically electronic instrumentation possessed incredible depth. Not unlike the recent project to adapt hip-hop producer J Dilla's music for a 40-piece orchestra, the strings had the ability to touch on the aesthetic that musicians with an electronic palate favor: nostalgic, a little anachronistic, and achingly beautiful.
They also managed to bridge the gap between modern jazz and 20th century classical music. In an arrangement of guitarist Ben Monder's "In Memoriam," which deconstructed the guitarist's intricate tone poem piece-by-piece, and distributed the pieces freely to the ensemble, the strings and brass made it evident just how much of Monder's fondness for dark dissonances, coupled with strong melodies, were related to the works of Arnold Schoenberg and Charles Ives. And the string section was not content to merely play the arrangements. Violin soloists like Sara Caswell and Meg Okura burned brightly alongside the jazz cats behind them, employing everything from punchy double-stops, wild outside harmonies, and even bebop phrasing. There was also a poignant moment when cellist Jody RedhageFerber's wife and co-conspirator for the nonet-plus-strings projectshared a duet melody with Ferber's straight-muted trombone on "Wildwood," named for where the couple got married. Ferber's restless and harmonically ambiguous style of writing saved the piece from becoming overly sentimental.
Ferber has more than earned his Rising Star Trombonist title in Downbeat Magazine. He's established a unique voice that can occasionally be dissected into its diverse influences: when the music flourishes and heightens tension, his sometimes hard-edged but always clear upper register has shades of powerhouse trombonists like Conrad Herwig, Roswell Rudd and Frank Rosolino; when it comes down, he has a rich, centered tone like Curtis Fuller or Slide Hampton. His aural sense is also highly advanced. He hears and produces lines that grate right up against the harmony, a trait that comes through in his writing as well. During his improvisation in "Wildwood," he began to slide up a half step from chord tones into seemingly illogical territory, until it was revealed he was a step ahead of the game, perfectly matching the harmonic change. Ferber's writing has become more sophisticated than ever, evoking textural (and sometimes visual) landscapes, and taking the "little big band" sound into uncharted territory. Charts like "Ice Cave" also embrace free and avant-garde jazz, utilizing every sound physically possible to be produced as the ensemble imitated the creaking and shifting of ice shelves.
The rest of his eight jazz companions were among a wide array of some of the best New York musicians currently working, whether or not they have earned their due notoriety. Alto saxophonist Jon Gordon exhibited a beautiful tone and a smart soloing instinct, utilizing space and flowing development on a tune he wrote for the band, "Paradox." Trumpeter Scott Wendholt chose the most bebop-informed solo style of all nine musicians, making swinging and linear sense of Ferber's adventurous writing. Bass clarinetist Doug Yates demonstrated an incendiary concept, stretching in both directions from the "in but also out" style of players like Eric Dolphy. Tenor saxophonist Andrew Rathbun soloed with a tempered, even sound, one that moved from simple lines to sheets of sound without losing its center of gravity. Bryn Roberts's piano breakdown in "Hyperballad" was an intriguing display of crystalline, pulsating piano clusters. On "Sedona," guitarist Nate Radley eschewed the overindulgence of most jazz guitarists, in pursuit of a soloing style that flowed with thematic movement and intent compositional logic. Matt Clohesy's bass solo on "Wildwood" was rich and earthy, making full use of his instrument's lower register. Drummer Ted Poor has established himself as formidable, highly musical drummer and continues to do so. His solo on "Paradox" showed off his extreme control of the drum set, conjuring up enormous batches of sound, stopping them like a cork in a bottle and then letting them flow out again.
The future of the large ensemble in jazz is tentative, to say the least. It's becoming increasingly impractical economically for some musicians to start or even maintain big bands. But should the big band model fade out completelyand, fortunately, that does not seem to be the casethere is still clearly room for innovation. Ferber's nonet with strings was a novel concept on paper and in the first stages of practice. However, when it got going and exhibited all it could do, it felt as obvious and natural as breathing.