Alan Ferber’s previous album March Sublime (Sunnyside) marked the trombonist and composer’s first major foray into writing for big band and netted him his first Grammy nomination. For his latest album, Roots & Transitions (Sunnyside), Ferber has stripped down his palette, returning to his long-time nine-piece band. The album features a suite of new music commissioned by Chamber Music America and inspired by Ferber’s experience as a new father, watching his infant son grow and change.
The Jazz Gallery is thrilled to welcome Ferber back to our stage to celebrate the release of this beautiful and deeply-personal music. Jazz Speaks caught with Ferber by phone to talk more about his compositional process for the suite and balancing his work as a performer, composer, and father.
The Jazz Gallery: You’ve got two shows coming up at The Gallery–a two-night album release for Roots & Transitions. The liner notes for the album are written so beautifully and sensitively. Was that all your writing?
Alan Ferber: Yeah, I wrote most of it, and then sent it to Sunnyside to edit it. It’s a project that I’m pretty intimately connected with in a big way, on a number of levels.
TJG: You described this idea of subjecting these small musical cells to different translations and transformations in a way that parallels your own personal development during this recent period. Could you talk a little more about that?
AF: I guess to put it into context, this piece was the result of a grant that I received from Chamber Music America’s New Jazz Works commission. When I received the grant, my wife was pregnant, so I sort of knew what my life circumstances were going to be. I knew, and I also had no idea what that was going to be like. When I received the grant, with the reality of our son being born, during that first year of his life, I was starting to write the piece and, in a way, had very little time to do it, because of my family responsibilities. I tried to think about how life starts. In particular, having a child, you see how just a little seed can develop and get more complex. When he enters the world, you see it play out in front of you. And this was so inspiring to me, from a musical perspective.
Out of necessity, I didn’t have the time to focus on trombone and composition, which used to be two separate things. I started to practice compositionally on the trombone. So I was coming up with little motives and seed ideas on an instrument that severely limits you. You can’t play a chord on the trombone. You can’t have the immediate gratification of a chord voicing, which is advantageous, yet challenging. I realized that I had to come up with something, even if it was a three- or four-note idea that was compelling. Once I came up with it, I allowed the idea to gestate over a long the course of time. I would improvise with it, extend it, manipulate it, and approach it with different techniques. And depending on how I was feeling, if I didn’t get any sleep because my son was up all night, if I was anxious or edgy for example, the ideas I had would be a real reflection of that.
TJG: Could you give an example?
AF: One night, we were out and he was with a babysitter. He was in this really rambunctious stage. We came back, and he had just fallen onto a toy clock, and it was just a mess, man. He was crying his eyes out, and there was blood, and it felt really traumatic. Like, Oh my god, what do we do, should we go to the emergency room? Should we just clean it up? And this and that, and so on. It was the first time something like that had happened to us. But everything was cool in the end. And the next morning, I started to write, and was feeling this angst, which translated into angular ideas and intervals. And there’s a tune called “Clocks” on the album, which is angular, edgy, and not terribly comfortable-sounding.
TJG: On “Clocks,” Jon Gordon and Nate Radley’s solos are absolutely huge.
AF: Yeah. Their solos contribute compositionally to the piece. And I realized, as I was composing this tune, the ‘seed’ idea, a perfect forth surrounded chromatically that serves as the first part of the melody, I realized that I had sort of almost stolen it subconsciously from this free improvisation from one of Jon Gordon’s records. It had this kind of contemporary improvisation between him and Bill Charlap. It’s this strange and beautiful intervallic seed idea, and it became the main idea for “Clocks,” and so it felt appropriate to have Jon solo over it, considering how he informed it.
TJG: Did he know where you’d taken the idea from?
AF: He didn’t, until I told him eventually. He was like “Oh. Really?” And I actually saw Bill Charlap the other night and told him too, and he was like “Woah, crazy!” [Laughs] It was an improvised track from one of their records, where they grabbed that motif and played around with it for a while. It got into my subconscious and informed the piece. The fact that it was also informed by this traumatic life experience says something to how certain musical ideas can surface or resurface depending on how you’re feeling.