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Alan Ferber: Enneadic Endeavors

Alan Ferber: Enneadic Endeavors

Courtesy Chris Drukker


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I’m really happy that I returned to the nonet format because doing so reminded me how much I love playing with that orchestration. You can get really intimate, in a small subgroup, or you can get large, with a big band-like orientation, and you can also do everything in between here.
—Alan Ferber
When Alan Ferber was first finding his way as a Californian-turned-New Yorker near the dawn of the new millennium, he didn't know many people on his adopted scene. So logically, he used composing—for nonet, among other configurations—as a means for networking and fostering connections. "I don't like cold calling people; I just like to put projects together to meet people," shares the three-time Grammy-nominated trombonist, bandleader, composer, arranger and educator.

Nearly two decades later, Ferber found himself in a different city and a similar position. Having relocated to the Midwest to wait out the pandemic, he was isolated from his artistic community. Save for one unexpected connection, he had no colleagues in the area. "We were spending that period in St. Louis—my wife grew up there and her family still lives there," Ferber explains. "And we were there for long enough where I started longing to play with musicians in the area. The only problem was that I didn't really know anybody who lived there. However, as luck would have it, I did discover that [saxophonist] Chris Cheek—a St. Louis native—was in town."

Though Ferber had put nonet work on the back burner in the period immediately preceding the pandemic, focusing instead on his own big band, sideman engagements, commissions, production efforts and teaching, reconnecting with Cheek and contending with circumstances steered him back to a neighborhood of nine. "The fact that Chris was there and willing to play really had me thinking about putting a project together," he admits. "I wanted to play with him and take advantage of the fact that he was available and close by, and with the extra motivation of wanting to just meet some people in the city where we were residing I thought about the best way to approach things. I didn't want to put a big band together because that seemed pretty irresponsible at that moment [chuckles]. So a return to the nonet was where my thoughts went."

With that established focus and an abundance of time on his hands, Ferber began to revisit some earlier sketches and started writing in earnest. "I had all of these ideas that had been lingering—music I hadn't finished because I was busy with other commitments, ideas in my notebook, some arrangement concepts and things like that. So I started to work on them with the thought that Chris could anchor the horn section on baritone saxophone—the horn he'd been playing most at the time—and that this would give me an excuse to call people in the area."

Working with bassist Bob DeBoo, a scene-making linchpin who introduced him to musicians in the region and helped secure rehearsal space and performance opportunities at The Dark Room, Ferber was able to form a new nonet. And by workshopping and stage-testing his charts, he found extreme promise in this enneadic endeavor. So after returning to New York, as life was nearing normal, he reformed his Big Apple band and recorded Up High, Down Low (Sunnyside. 2023).

With a release date coinciding with the nonet's twentieth anniversary, this album speaks to a storied trajectory for the group. A confluence of factors had once contributed to the establishment of the ensemble—Ferber's infatuation with the instrumental palette on pianist Don Grolnick's horn-rich Nighttown, work with guitarist Anthony Wilson's nonet, ample time to write and playtest material with pit mates in a Broadway touring production of Fosse, the aforementioned desire to create a musical community upon settling in New York—and a string of acclaimed recordings now speaks to its legacy.

On the nonet's debut—Scenes from an Exit Row (Fresh Sound New Talent, 2005)—Ferber introduced a fresh take on the format. With The Compass (Fresh Sound New Talent, 2007) he oriented the band after working things out at New York clubs like Smalls. In Chamber Songs (Sunnyside, 2010) he married this midsized marvel to strings, creating a fluid dynamic for the greater whole and its various parts. And through Roots & Transitions (Sunnyside, 2016) he put his own lens on parenthood, presenting an eight-movement suite exploring the balancing act between life's anchors and developments. Seven years on from that last set—with the creation of this "pandemic record," as Ferber rightly categorizes it—the story continues.

Presenting nine awe-inspiring numbers culled from various corners, the program speaks to a signature eclectic streak in this bandleader's work. "I tend to do that, pulling from various places for my albums," Ferber notes. "I'll have an original of mine. I'll have a traditional or a standard from the '30s. Then some sort of pop or pop-adjacent tune." Using contrasting material in complementary fashion just comes naturally to this musical polyglot, as he ably demonstrates throughout.

Every piece on Up High, Down Low has its own unique origin story, and each speaks to deep thought and artistic deliberation. Opening on the title track, a composition working the eponymous planes into prismatic funk abstractions, Ferber shows a serious propensity for rhythmic development. "The original idea was something that I came up with while I was playing trombone and imagining myself playing with my brother, [drummer] Mark Ferber. We grew up playing together, obviously, and practicing duo with him is something I've always enjoyed doing. It just brings rhythm to the forefront a bit more. When I'm coming up with ideas for songs, I don't always do it at the piano or on a voice memo or with pencil/paper on the score. Sometimes I just try to mine ideas from playing my instrument."

Once Ferber used his trombone to establish a basic blueprint he began to ornament those plans with technological filigree. "I had a concept that I really liked, and I developed some things around it using the software Logic, which I hadn't really used as a compositional tool before." Offering something unique for those acquainted with Ferber's music, the final result even managed to surprise the composer. "I had never really heard anything like it from me," he shares with a laugh. "And I love how Mark plays on it. This captures our special twin dynamic, that element of rhythm and rhythmic interaction that we've always had."

Switching gears after setting off, Ferber brings "Brimstone Boogaloo" out of a virtual reality and into our world. "That was the result of writing music for a character named Brimstone for the game Valorant," he explains. "It's a near-future, post-apocalyptic, first-person shooter video game. The producers set parameters for me, citing a '60s jazz vibe, heist movies...and the fact that this music would appear at the point in the game where the character is about to be shot into another dimension. So with those directions and references in place, this is what I came up with."

A groovy, Lee Morgan-indebted blues, "Brimstone Boogaloo" makes good use of alto flute, harmon-muted trumpet and guitar, presenting an orchestrational combination that nods to a musical icon. "That was directly inspired by Quincy Jones and, specifically, his Big Band Bossa Nova (Mercury, 1962) album. That orchestration was very much on purpose, as was the contrast between Charles Pillow's mellow alto flute and Scott Wendholt's burning trumpet. I was going for an arc in the solo sections—a cool alto flute releasing into this fiery trumpet. This is something I often do as an arranger, thinking about how one solo leads to another and how that can affect the general shape of the arrangement."

Moving on to a swinging scenario with "Ambling," Ferber furthers the music by merging two streams of influence. "That piece was the byproduct of practicing Billy Strayhorn's 'Upper Manhattan Medical Group' a lot and getting into this great Quincy Jones arrangement of Benny Golson's 'Little Karin.' If you listen to those two tunes, it all makes sense. But looking beyond those touchstones, I really just wanted to write something comfortable with a two feel. I'm a big fan of a two feel that breaks into 4/4 swing on the solos." Working in Db, Ferber intentionally references Strayhorn's key of choice and its embrace of the baritone saxophone's lowest note(s). And with the piece's standard-esque stature, it proves to be a source of pride. "It's very hard to write a good swing tune. Extremely hard, actually. You have to dip into that language somewhat unapologetically. Sometimes your mind plays tricks on you and makes you think things sound too typical. You can talk yourself out of something, which can be a mistake. So I was very pleased with where my instincts took me and how the piece turned out."

Updating a classic, Ferber and company swing brightly on his arrangement of Harry Warren and Mack Gordon's "The More I See You," which is based on pianist Ben Waltzer's trio version. "I used to teach at a camp with Ben in Maine for years and we would always do these faculty concerts where we would play our own music," Ferber shares. "And I always loved his sets. His playing on Monk and Ellington/Strayhorn struck me in particular because of his strong left hand and infectious style of swing. He also sometimes gravitated toward a block-chord style of arrangement—tight piano voicings, diminished passing chords, those kinds of things. I wanted to learn more about that and get into that mindset—being a trombone player, I don't really live there—so part of arranging this was me just being curious about what it would look like on paper. They're pretty fast moving melodies—tight and mobile voicings—and I thought that they would probably translate really well for five horns."

While making some structural modifications and changing the key from the source by moving it up a whole step from Eb to F, Ferber retained the driving feel and pushed things a bit further. "'The More I See You' is usually played as a ballad, traditionally, and Ben does it as this sort of spritely swing tune which had some energy. Then I sped up the tempo even more. It just has a lot of excitement to it and it has an interesting form—it isn't just a head-solos-head arrangement. It has these little events—this drum solo event, and a pedal point section before it goes into regular changes. So there are different spaces for improvisers. It has a longer story than expected and it doesn't feel like just a jam session. There's a narrative quality to it. I think it swings really hard, and the players in my band—Jon Gordon, Scott Wendholt, Chris Cheek, John Ellis—all sound so great playing in that style. I could just listen to every one of them playing a set of standards every night for the rest of my life and be a happy man."

Reaching the album's midpoint, Ferber returns to originals with "In Hindsight." A clear standout, even in such strong compositional company, it demonstrates supreme mastery in a down-tempo domain. "That was originally a commission that I had written for a high school big band in California. The group's director asked me to write it and said that the band plays well with big orchestral chords, noting that they have a great, warm, collective sound. So I tried to think of something that was on the slower side. He had listened to my first big band record, March Sublime (Sunnyside, 2013), and pointed out a couple of pieces. I believe 'Wildwood' was one of them and the title track was one of them. So I kind of knew the type of piece that he liked that I did."

Once Ferber homed in on the style the band director was seeking, he rolled up his sleeves and got to work. "I set out to write something slow—not really a power ballad per se, but a backbeat-grounded, soulful tune. And I chose a key that would ultimately function well for a guitar feature. It's in the key of G, and the guitar solo is over these guitar hero chords [chuckles], just a lot of open strings." That commissioned piece worked perfectly for the high school band and, once the pandemic offered sufficient time, Ferber rearranged it. "I generally like to have a tune like that on my records...so I just reframed it for nonet. [Guitarist] Nir Felder did a beautiful job with that tune. And I reorchestrated the melody for John Ellis and Chris Cheek, who both sound amazing. Both of them play melodies as if they're singers, and since this piece required a vocal approach, they both fulfilled what I was hoping for. I spent a lot of time thinking about the overall shape of that piece as well. It just continues to unfold. It never really repeats itself."

Moving to the world of Joni Mitchell for the first of two vocal numbers turned into instrumentals, Ferber casts a powerful spell on a reworked arrangement of a big band chart he originally wrote as a feature for a wonderful South African vocalist. "I had done a few gigs in Taiwan with a great singer named Tutu Puoane. I was at a festival in Taipei and I just asked her, kind of at the last minute, if she'd want to come up for a couple of tunes. So she came up on stage and we played, and we totally hit it off musically. That may have planted the seed for what came later." Fast forward a couple years and Puoane was asked to participate in a project with the Brussels Jazz Orchestra. "She wanted to do a few Joni Mitchell pieces and she asked me to write two arrangements for her—'Big Yellow Taxi' and 'Cherokee Louise.' I thought they both turned out well, so when I thought about this record I knew I wanted to include one."

Ferber had already reorchestrated that arrangement of "Cherokee Louise" on one occasion, making it a trumpet feature for big band, but a desire to step into the lead role while condensing and retaining the metric sleight of hand and overall identity from the previous versions led to this nonet take. "While it's not really a trombone feature, I wanted to write myself onto the melody so I'm in the singer's role," he notes. "And in terms of the meter, I really like the 6/8 feel. There's sort of a three-against-two aspect to that tune. It's in the original Joni Mitchell version and I took advantage of it in the arrangement, playing between those feels with that polyrhythm. I really like how that sits with this ensemble. A light three-against-two thing can be hard to successfully navigate and achieve in a big band, given the number of players, but there's a lightness that we got with the nonet that I really dig."

Later, in the penultimate slot, Ferber delivers his take on Norah Jones' "Day Breaks." Capturing the wah-ing vibe of the intro and the overall spirit of the model, he also imbues the music with his own personality. "The tune opens with this really unusual guitar figure on the original. Instead of using a tremolo effect, the guitarist actually controlled the volume slope with his volume nob on the guitar, manually," he recalls from an interview he read. "I thought that that was really interesting. And since I wanted to create an arrangement that was a little bit whimsical, and I've always liked the wah-wah effect of the harmon mutes, I just orchestrated that for me and Scott in these dyads doing that on the offbeats. It creates an off-kilter feeling to start the track. And then, ultimately, Mark's drums come in and anchor everything. It was a no-brainer in some ways to make this a tenor feature rather than including multiple solos. Just John, all the way through."

In spotlighting Ellis, the bandleader draws welcome attention to the only remaining original member of the nonet without the Ferber surname. "John and my brother Mark are the through line in the band's history, for sure," the trombonist shares. "They were there from the get-go. And in terms of John's appeal in particular, it's his sound. His vocal style, as I already touched on. It's his connection with singing. I don't think he actually sings, really, but with the way he plays, you somehow think that someone is singing to you. I couldn't think of a better person to deliver that melody."

Intent on leveraging the aforementioned singing strength, Ferber spent a significant amount of time thinking about the tenor's range and how the song would sit in the upper register. "I like how the tenor saxophone sounds up top. I agonized over the key. I know Norah Jones had chosen the key of E and the highest note's a B there. I think it was at the very top of her range...so I was thinking about that in terms of translating it to the tenor saxophone. It's not the top of the horn, but it's getting there. So it's high enough where there is a little bit of a crying element to it. And that's a very pretty, beautiful range, especially in the hands of John. I love how his sound is both bright and somehow a lot cooler up there. It has a real emotional quality to it. I ended up moving the key up one half step to F. And things seemed to lay a little bit better there for the instrument and the band."

Though Jones and Mitchell are far different artists, and these specific pieces each occupy their own artistic landscapes, they're bound by an affinity for a certain company's involvement. "I'm so into that aspect of singers like Norah Jones and Joni Mitchell who tend to surround themselves with jazz musicians. I mean, Norah Jones was a jazz singer before she became more of a pop singer so that makes perfect sense. She's frequently recorded with people like Brian Blade. And Joni often aligned herself with jazz musicians, and I dig that. That record with 'Cherokee Louise,' Night Ride Home (Geffen, 1991), had Vinnie Colaiuta on drums; and Wayne Shorter, of course, was on there and on that Norah Jones tune too. There are just some incredible musicians on these tracks. So from that standpoint, it's just fun to hear how those people play with a singer. When I'm gravitating toward songs, I generally move toward those singers who have sort of a history of attracting these musicians toward their music. And jazz musicians come back to their pieces again and again because they're interesting songs."

Nestled between the two vocal-turned-instrumental works is "Violet Soul," the final Ferber original on the playlist. A composition with a capacious opening, beautiful horn writing and voice leading, and memorable solo work from Gordon, its origins speak to another time and setting. "I had originally written the theme—the basic tune—when I was in my early twenties," Ferber explains. "And it just stayed in my notebook. I can't tell you why. But I just never did anything with it." More recently, just a few years ago when Ryan Truesdell commissioned Ferber to write a string quartet, that unused sketch came to mind. "I started thinking about things and writing a bit, and then I thought, 'Wait a minute.' I remembered this tune, realized that it could help, and was actually able to find it."

Using that discovery as a primary source and springboard, Ferber was able to complete the string commission and, later, rework the piece for nonet. "It needed some tweaking. And for this recording with the nonet I really updated it in the sense that I wrote a big a cappella five-horn chorale, for an entire chorus, that's totally through-composed. It's almost like a five-part Bach chorale in a way. Then it releases into a traditional jazz ballad with brushes, featuring one of my favorite alto players of all time—Jon Gordon." A piece well-suited to the ensemble, it also filled a programming hole. "I was thinking about what the album needed at that point. I didn't have anything highlighting the horn section. So it was a good move to add that and I'm particularly happy with it."

Though Ferber could've easily elected to use one of his own compositions to cap the program, he chose instead to end with his arrangement of Cheek's "Ice Fall." Long a fan of the original, he previously arranged the piece for bass trombonist Jennifer Wharton's Bonegasm—a slide-centric outfit in which he holds membership. "Chris' album Vine (Fresh Sound New Talent, 1999) is certainly one of my desert island records," Ferber shares. "And I've always loved 'Ice Fall' and always intended to do something with it. I had really wanted to use it for this nonet record because we had guitar and piano, which create a three-dimensional stereo effect when orchestrated in unison. The original has Kurt Rosenwinkel and Brad Mehldau doing this, and that sound has always been stuck in my ears. So with guitar and piano in this band, I wanted to take advantage of that."

A fitting conclusion, given Cheek's role in the return of the nonet, "Ice Fall" makes for a full circle moment while highlighting the composer's musical gifts. "This was a tune that, having spent a lot of time with Chris during that stretch, I really wanted to record as a documented reminder of this extraordinarily unique period of my life. And I turned it into a bari feature only because he was playing it. I feel that he's one of the greatest saxophone players on the planet. I have a special affinity for the way he plays. It's his sound, melody, time, pitch, everything really." As with the entire program, Cheek's work on baritone saxophone proves to be a standout while highlighting the low-end reed change in the ensemble, which, prior to this recording and iteration of the band, included bass clarinet instead.

Ferber readily admits that prior to the pandemic he had no intention of making another nonet record. But now that Up High, Down Low is out in the world, he's excited about future prospects for the music and the ensemble(s) that helped shape it. "Having played this music in a few different places, I can say that it seems to resonate not only with the musicians playing it, but also with audiences," he enthused. "I'm really happy that I returned to this format because doing so reminded me how much I love playing with that orchestration. You can get really intimate, in a small subgroup, or you can get large, with a big band-like orientation, and you can also do everything in between here. And to be honest, this was just a great way to reconnect with people I've been playing with for a long time and for me to meet new people in St. Louis. We built a new community there, and then this music helped to bring my old community back together in New York. When we made this record, we didn't rehearse. We just went into the studio and did it. And it was like riding a bike. It just felt good. There was immediate chemistry with these players. And I can hear that and feel it when I listen back. I hear that history that's built up, and it makes me happy."




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