Alan Ferber: Developing String Theory

Franz A. Matzner By

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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.

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