Alan Ferber: Developing String Theory


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Trombonist and composer Alan Ferber is a precise and thoughtful individual whose careful, deliberate expression is equally evident in both his insightful way of speaking—and his beautifully composed and executed recordings. As a freelancer, Ferber has tackled a wide breadth of music, everything from big band and small ensemble jazz to Broadway musicals and the beats of Dr. Dre.

But it is as a composer and a performer of his own music that Ferber's gifts most clearly shine.

As evidenced by his latest nonet recording, Chamber Songs: Music for Nonet and Strings (Sunny Side, 2010), Chamber Songs: Music for Nonet and Strings (Sunny Side, 2010), Ferber is never satisfied with the simple approach. His experiments are subtle and complex, based on a clear love of the potentialities of musical structure. While repeat scrutiny reveals hidden depths of thought, his compositions are also accessible on first listen.

Equally, while often based on intricate ideas or clever references, the force and eloquence of his writing does not depend on unraveling these aspects. At the heart of Ferber's music lies a sense of balance, a balance of form and expressiveness born of serious contemplation and lasting commitment.

All About Jazz: You grew up in Oakland, Calif., in a musical family, correct?

Alan Ferber: I started out in Oakland and then moved to a suburb. There was a pretty strong music program at the high school, very supportive of the arts... Our grandmother was a Broadway actress and also sang quite a bit. I have what I think is the only recording of her where she sings basically jazz standards. It's pretty amazing to hear it. She also sang with Frank Sinatra, with Gene Krupa's big band. And I think she knew the Dorsey brothers because there was a picture that someone made me aware of recently that ran in the international trombone association journal with her and the Dorsey brothers. None of us had any idea she knew them.

So I came up with my brother—who is a drummer, Mark Ferber. He's on all my albums, pretty much. I think growing up, particularly with an identical twin that shares the same interests musically and otherwise, it really helps to grow as a musician when you can feed off each other, share ideas, share recordings, the whole nine yards. And, of course, most importantly play with each other as you grow up.

AAJ: Were your parents working musicians?

AF: No, not working musicians, just supporters. My mother is a musician. She doesn't make a living doing it, but she still today is being cast in regional shows in the Bay area. She volunteered and taught classes in our middle school. She was very much involved in the music program in a lot of ways.

AAJ: With all that family lineage and interest in music, do you remembers your first musical memory?

AF: The very first musical memory? Wow. I guess it would have to be when I was four years old, I started on piano and I remember playing my first song out of the Suzuki book. I just remember it was the first one in there. It was probably like hot crossed buns, or something, you know?

I remember I was just very attracted to how all these disparate sounds could work together so beautifully. It wasn't something, obviously, I was analyzing at the time. It was just something I felt. It felt really good to me—particularly when you start on the piano, you are able to play chords, melodies, supporting chords and what not and really get a sense of how music works.

Most importantly, when you are 4-years-old you either like it or you don't. I think for me from the very beginning I was attracted to sounds.

AAJ: What about your brother? Did he also start on the piano?

AF: He did. We both started on piano, it just didn't interest him as much. As far back as I can remember, he would always be tapping on things. Always had a penchant for rhythm. Whether at the dinner table or—this is well before we had a drum set. He was always just hitting things, he was more attracted to rhythm. Not necessarily harmony but more how sound works in a more rhythmic way. He was always fidgeting with utensils or whatever.

AAJ: It's quite interesting. You are identical twins and both had this strong musical interest, but from very early on there was already a predilection towards different sounds and approach to the music.

AF: My mom in particular played a lot of music in the house. She is particularly a Broadway aficionado, but likes jazz, classical music. We would just always have it playing and we'd always be hearing it.

AAJ: That answers one of my questions, how you were introduced to jazz—it sounds like it was just in the house and nothing formal.

AF: Yeah, it was partly that. I don't know why I remember this and I'm not sure it qualifies as a first introduction to jazz but I do remember, funny enough, being blown away by a tenor saxophone solo that was played on a Looney Tunes cartoon. I can't even remember what cartoon. But I remember being like, "what is this music?"

AAJ: Now that you say it, I wonder how many people have their first introduction to jazz through some kind of non-jazz specific way. We're exposed to it without thinking about.

AF: I think for me, watching this silly cartoon. I remember I had no idea what it was but really liking it.

I started getting more into jazz particularly in high school. My parents had me studying with a great trombonist in the area named Dean Hubbard and we would play in our lessons a little bit. He would improvise and that's where I discovered how great the trombone can sound, particularly in jazz. I started getting way into it. I would record what I was playing and then try to figure it out more when I got home.

AAJ: When did you make the transition from piano to trombone?

AF: That was in fifth grade. I'm really tall so I was one of the only guys who could reach close to seventh position in fifth grade, so they pretty much just assigned it to me because physiologically it worked...You notice, there are a lot of very tall trombone players out there.

AAJ: What made you stay with the trombone?

AF: It was a combination of studying with this guy Dean Hubbard— and also going to the Stanford workshop, which was my first jazz summer camp. There were several trombonists there who I heard for the first time who were really playing beautifully, particularly improvising, and I just fell in love with the sound of the instrument and how it can express certain things in a very human, vocal quality. The trombone, to me, fits in with the sound of the human voice. I fell in love with that human element in the sound that I was really attracted to.

AAJ: How would you describe your personal musical pedigree? The musical influences that comprise your musical development?

AF: Early on, the first records I got, and I would say these are still big influences, were John Coltrane, J.J. Johnson and Art Blakey. Those were the first three records that I owned. John Coltrane's Blue Train (Blue Note, 1957), Art Blakey Big Beat (Blue Note 1960), and the J.J. Johnson is just called The Trombone Master (Columbia, 1957) and it is a compilation.

Those impacted me very significantly. In the sense that, unlike today, those were the only three records I had access to. In some ways, I just can't understand how students can start in the digital age because, for me, you went to the record store and that is all you got.

AAJ: I remember that. I remember the first CDs I bought. The first time I went to a store and bought a CD, I listened to that for weeks, just that one CD.

AF: Yeah, everything about it influences you. The way it sounds, the way the tracks are sequenced, the artwork, all the information in the liner notes. You just eat it up.

AAJ: So at this time, did you dive into jazz or was there other kinds of music that you were studying at the same time? Whether that be classical or listening to pop?

AF: At my high school at that time, the bands that were really popular that I was concurrently listening to were bands like King Crimson, Rush and Yes. I certainly listened to a lot of music from those bands, but it is hard to say how much of an influence they were. They must have been in some form or another.

Also, the fusion thing was in its heyday when I was in high school. So that was what my brother was getting into and those things influenced me as well. He was really into a lot of fusion bands, like the Chick Corea Elektric Band. All these bands that sound so dated now—at least to me when I hear them now I think, "Wow, that sounds so '80s." At the time, though, it was like this is it, this is it.

AAJ: Have you and your brother always played together or were there times when you went in separate directions?

AF: No, we never really went in any separate directions. Even though we don't see each other as much now that we're both doing so many things, we've always played together. We've never had our paths split in any way. We've always lived close to each other. For instance, we lived in L.A. close to each other. Then, I moved to New York—three months later he moved to New York.

We both studied abroad for a year in college. We were always around each other. Every step of the way we've been with each other. Being a twin, is a pretty special relationship in a lot of ways.

AF: We graduated college in 1997 and both of us worked around L.A. pretty extensively, freelancing. In retrospect, it was a great way to get started learning how to be a freelancer in an area that wasn't quite as intense as New York. And the other thing is, in college, Mark and I developed a lot of strong musical relationships with people we still make music with today. We went to college with Todd Sickafoose, who I still play with ... I've probably played every composition he's written. We were roommates—Mark and I were roommates at one point; we go way back. Gretchen Parlato, we were in school together. And many others.

AAJ: That is quite a class.

AF: It was a really great time to be there. It really probably is one of the big reasons I am the kind of musician I am now. I think a lot of people go into music and get caught up in finding all the money gigs, in making a living. I was more interested in finding where all the great music is and not quite so concerned with finding the gig that paid the most money.

AAJ: It's still a challenge to make a living that way, isn't it?

AF: Oh, definitely! But you find a balance. I've certainly found a way to balance money and art, in New York.

From left: Bryn Roberts, Jon Gordon, Nate Radley, Scott Wendholt Matt Clohesy, Jason Rigby, Alan Ferber, Adam Kolker

AAJ: Let's talk a minute about New York and your move to New York. It sounds like you came to New York with quite a bit of professional experience, but California and New York are really different atmospheres. Was there an adjustment period involved in the move? Can you describe that a little bit?

AF: When I first got to New York, I was just so excited to be there; I didn't have much of a plan. I was talking to a friend of mine on the phone who lived in New York—he had actually called the house looking for my brother and I happened to pick up on the phone. "Hey, you're Allen—Mark's brother. Man, you ever thought of moving to NY? There's an apartment opening up in my building next week and it's really cheap."

And it was kind of a good time for me in L.A. and I quickly realized if I wanted to do this I had better do [it] right now before I got any older. I just said "All right, I'll take it," without giving it a whole lot of thought. I bought a plane ticket and headed to New York.

I didn't really know anyone when I got there. I was really excited when I initially got there; I went out every night. I was really excited for the first couple months, then after a few months I realized, "Wow, this is a really different place." That's when I started to think, "What am I doing?"

AAJ: Did you have any tough times at the beginning?

AF: Oh, of course. God. There was a month or two there when I was ready to just move back. 'Cause I knew I was working in L.A. and I didn't have much going on at all in New York.

AAJ: What makes it so difficult? Because this is a common theme.

AF: It's just an overwhelming place in comparison to where I came from. California is all about wide open spaces—there are a lot of people in California but that is also a lot of surface area. And I just wasn't used to living with people on top and right below me. This kind of vertical situation and you step outside your apartment door and there are just people everywhere. That is what initially excited me about New York, but then that is also eventually what overwhelmed me a little bit.

AAJ: If New York and California were pieces of music, what would they be?

AF: L.A. would probably be a Debussy piece; very expansive and it takes its time to develop. And New York is like putting on John Coltrane Live at the Village Vanguard (Impulse!, 1961). From note one, it's like bud-di-bil-ib-bi-hab-da [laughs]. There is no time to ease into it—you are in it.

AAJ: You've played with a really big range of musicians in a broad range of genres—from Paul Anka to Dr. Dre. What was the most challenging context for you to work with?

AF: Challenging could mean "God, how am I going to get through this gig? It's so boring," or challenging in the sense of "Wow, I can barely play this 'cause it's so hard"?

AAJ: How about one of each?

AF: Playing a wedding is one of the most challenging things in the world because it's probably one of the most wholly-uninspiring musical situations I could be in, personally. But seriously that's a hard question ... Often times, the most challenging situation for me stems from whether the leader of the band or the ensemble is really flexible and cool and wants you there because of you—that would be the type of situation that is more inspiring than challenging. Whereas if you have a leader who is an extreme micromanager and everything you play isn't right, then that is very, very challenging in the sense that you don't feel like you can do anything right.

AAJ: What was the gig like with Dr. Dre?

AF: Oh, it was kind of bizarre. I did a lot of recording for Dr. Dre while I was in L.A. I would often get the phone call at really odd hours. I remember getting one at two in the morning. It would always be this guy at the other end of the line and he'd be like "Yo,yo,yo, Dre needs some horns—you gotta get down to the studio."

He was one of these guys that are 24/7 in the studio if he was working on a project. If he wanted horns, the phone would ring and you'd have to come down and track the horns if it was three in the morning or two in the afternoon.

It was definitely fun. I have to say, I don't know him all that well but I would go in and he would know exactly what he wanted. Sometimes, I'd arrive a little early and I'd listen to him working on different beats. I developed a lot of respect for him as an artist in the sense that he had a strong grasp of what he wanted.

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 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. 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. 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.

AAJ: What was the overall inspiration for the album. Was there an overall musical challenge you were approaching?

AF: My wife Jodi is a cellist—she is a fabulous cellist in New York. I originally met her and got to know her music; then got to know her community of musicians she plays with. I would go out and listen to a lot of musicians that she was playing with. I just naturally started to immerse myself in string-centric or string-oriented music around New York. She does a lot of work in the new music world. She has her own project where she brings people in, improvisatory folks. In other words, she doesn't just hang out with a bunch of orchestral musicians. She introduced me to a lot of string players that exist outside of that realm.

I think naturally over time I became more and more attracted to that sound. And not in the way of [using] strings as sweeteners, but how I could use them creatively to enhance my nonet project which I had already been working on for the last five years. I was looking for a different sonic approach to this record. So initially, the seed of the idea came from there. It then blossomed as I listened more and more extensively to her scene of friends and colleagues.

AAJ: Earlier, you didn't mention classical as a strong musical influence, but this album certainly sounds as if you have a background there.

AF: If I were to give you my strongest classical influence, it would be Bach; his four-part choral writing is used all over this record. If you go in and look at the scores and how I think about moving the voices around, it really comes from the studies I've done of Bach. And it is a double-string quartet on the record, which means I am dealing with four voices so that those four-part chorals were [where] I drew a lot of influence.

AAJ: It seems a challenge to have that kind of structure, but still giving space to let the improvisation work. It creates an interesting effect that is not just head, improvisation and that's it. How would you describe that process? Maybe walk us through one of the pieces from composing it to recording it in the studio.

AF: The last piece, and I think this a general rule I carry over to all my pieces. I observe what instruments and personalities I have available for that piece. Then I really try to take advantage of almost every combination I can to maximize the number of colors I can from that expectation. So, for example, I am not trying to use all forces at all times. I am trying to find ways to maximize the peaks and the valleys dynamically and texturally. So in that last piece, you'll notice in the middle there's about a full minute when only strings are playing and then the end and the beginning are just horns. And every combination in between is used during the piece. I bring instruments in, drop them out. Viola and tenor at one spot, then cello and trombone or clarinet at another spot. Then just the strings, just the horns. I want to take advantage of all the colors in my palette.

Selected Discography

Alan Ferber Nonet, Chamber Songs (Sunnyside, 2010)

Charlie Hunter, Gentlemen, I Neglected To Inform You You Will Not Be Getting Paid (Spire Artists, 2010)

Chris Jentsch Group Large, Cycles Suite (Fleur de Son, 2009)

David Binney/Alan Ferber, In The Paint (Posi-Tone Records, 2009)

Gary Morgan and PanAmericana!, Felicidade (Self Produced, 2008)

Anthony Wilson Nonet, Power of Nine (Groove Note, 2006)

Alan Ferber Nonet, Scenes From An Exit Row (Fresh Sound New Talent, 2005)

John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble, A Blessing (Omnitone Records, 2005)

Eric Starr, She (Eric Starr Records, 2003)

Alan Ferber Septet, Playground (Jazz House Records, 2001)

Todd Sickafoose Group, Dogs Outside (Evander Music, 2000)

The Daversa And Morell Band, The D.a.M. Band (Rough Cut Records 1994)

Photo credits

Page 1: David Smith

Page 2, 4, 5: Courtesy of Alan Ferber

Page 3: Scott Friedlander

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