Alan Ferber: Developing String Theory

Franz A. Matzner By

Sign in to view read count
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

About Alan Ferber
Articles | Calendar | Discography | Photos | More...



Shop for Music

Start your music shopping from All About Jazz and you'll support us in the process. Learn how.