Alan Ferber has always worn a closet’s worth of hats. Indeed, when he’s not a solid sideman for jazz-world superstars like Esperanza Spalding and John Hollenbeck, the trombonist-composer can often be heard in the low brass chair with orchestrally minded indie bands like Beirut, The National, and Sufjan Stevens. And then, of course, there’s Ferber’s own music, which gently breaks genre divides and makes the most out of horn-heavy ensembles like his nonet and big band.
Ferber’s most recent hat, though, is fatherhood, and upon winning a recent commission from Chamber Music America, he resolved to reflect on his young son’s life through music. The resulting composition, “Roots and Transitions,” is a typically sprawling work that returns Ferber to his original nonet after two years of supporting a big band record, 2013’s March Sublime (Sunnyside). On Tuesday night, the band takes the Gallery stage to perform “Roots and Transitions” in its entirety. We caught up with Ferber by phone to discuss the piece.
The Jazz Gallery: How has your nonet writing been informed by your experience writing and touring the big band album?
Alan Ferber: I didn’t think it would. I started writing for the nonet because I got a grant from Chamber Music America—New Jazz Works grant, and I essentially proposed a project and then had to follow through with it by writing a brand-new piece of music. It was a Chamber Music America piece so I tried to really think about writing it by limiting myself as a composer. I’d been doing big band for the last couple of years and it can be a very dense sound; you have thirteen horns to work with, and chord voicings and whatnot. But for this nonet project, I didn’t want to treat it as a little big band. I really wanted to treat this piece as true chamber music.
Doing the big band for a couple of years, it’s hard to really say if that changed the way I wrote for nonet. But I think what did change was the compositional process that I undertook this piece with, which involved me writing most of the main compositional material with just the trombone. On the piano, you can come up with mediocre melodic ideas but then you play a nice, juicy chord voicing and it’s like, “Aw yeah, that sounds great.” But on the trombone, you can’t do that. You have to have something melodically compelling in order to move forward compositionally with the piece. Honestly, the other part of it too was the fact that I’d just had a kid, and I needed to be playing the trombone. It’s such a high-maintenance instrument and I didn’t really have time to divide my time between composing and practicing.
That seemed appropriate for this piece because the premise of this piece is essentially based on my son. I tried to write something that moved through periods of rootedness and comfort and transition or discomfort, but ultimately, growth. It’s an eight movement piece and I tried to really mirror the natural human growth cycle. As a composer, I tried to write things that would be comfortable for the players but also write things that would be really uncomfortable for the players and see how the improvisers would respond.
TJG: The concept of the piece rests heavily on your recent personal history. Are you often trying to capture your current state or place in life through your music?
AF: I don’t think it’s something I try to do. I just think it’s something that happens no matter what. I really try to be genuine. One of my favorite quotes is Thelonious Monk; I’m not going to call myself a genius here but, he says that a genius is someone most like himself. When I’m playing my instrument in a band and improvising, or when I’m composing music, I just try to connect with what I’m honestly feeling rather than try to reflect something that I’m not. When I sit down and compose, it’s kind of sacred time for me. I try to really clear myself and let the most compelling ideas that I’m hearing come to the forefront and then work with those. So in that sense, it totally reflects my current state of being.
TJG: Your writing is often very specific, and this being a particularly “chamber music” piece, how much direction did you give the improvisers in your band?
AF: Actually, a couple of the movements have no improvising at all. They’re some of the shorter, interlude-type pieces. But I think that what I try to think about is how the players play melody. I toss the melodies around depending on how I think that they’re going to play the melody or how they express a written line. Ten different tenor players are going to play one written line differently. I have one tenor player that I’m writing for, and I can hear in my head how he’s going to play certain melodies, so it really affects the way I write my written material, even inner melody parts, secondary counter-melodies. Ultimately, I want the writing to sound improvised. I don’t want any of it to sound calculated. I want it all to have this human flow to it: whether it’s all written out or not, it’s going to sound natural and improvised in a way.
TJG: So on the improvised or solo sections, then, do you give your band members free reign?
AF: Generally I do. It’s funny, though: on this piece, I spent so much time, maybe more time on the piece than I have on anything else I’ve written. And I kind of have maybe too well-defined ideas of what I want for the improvised sections. Obviously I like to give a lot of latitude to the improvisers, but in some cases, I have a certain kind of spirit that I have in mind for the improvisation; certainly not notes that I want them to play, but a kind of spirit. So through the written material, I’m trying to get them to that natural place of improvising in the spirit that I want them to improvise in. And part of it is that I just try to choose players that really do play in the moment and do honor the compositional integrity of the music.
TJG: When you refer to this piece as “chamber music,” are you conscious of classical influence? Do you think about the line between genres or certain markers that might identify the piece as “classical” or “jazz”?
AF: My definition of chamber music is one player per part and a relatively small sized ensemble. Chamber music can be jazz. To me this is a jazz piece. It’s not a jazzy jazz piece, but it’s a piece that, like most of my music, draws from a lot of influences. Certainly jazz and classical, but also rock and mixed-meter funk. Some of the tunes are very groove-based. The last movement almost sounds like Squarepusher: it has a real M-Base meets Squarepusher kind of thing. I wouldn’t classify that as classical chamber music, but in just the nature of the orchestration, it definitely is chamber music. Every single person has a huge responsibility to hold their part down. Some of the stuff is really, really difficult, so every individual player has to be really dialed in.
TJG: How have the more classical- and folk-influenced rock acts you’ve performed with influenced your writing?
AF: I’ve done a lot of indie rock horn section stuff, but it varies based on different ensembles. One band that I’ve played a fair amount with is Beirut, and something I love about them is that the drummer almost never plays with cymbals. Every one of the drum grooves is a drum groove. I’m really attracted to that rhythmic, drum-based thing. Jazz is kind of a cymbal-based approach; the drums are just there to accent things. In indie rock, the drummers spend a lot more time thinking about the sound of the drums. That’s something that I’ve really thought about, and certainly for this piece I’ve written some specific drum parts, which I had never done before.
TJG: What musicians have influenced your bandleading most?
AF: The people who have had the most influence on me through their leadership are the people that I’ve played with the longest; people like Todd Sickafoose the bass player. I’ve played with him since we were in college and his approach has really affected the way I think about writing. John Hollenbeck; I’ve played with his band for many years and his approach has certainly filtered into my writing. More recently, the last couple of years I’ve played a lot with Miguel Zenon. His rhythmic approach certainly crept into this piece. John Ellis is actually in my band, but I’ve played his music for a while, and his music is awesome. By playing his music so much, his melodic sense has crept into my own music.
TJG: What else should Gallery audience members know about the show?
AF: It’s a really important show for me, because it’s revealing this new piece of music, and it’s also kind of bringing this ensemble—which I’ve had for years, but we haven’t really played much in four or five years—it’s kind of re-ushering this ensemble into reality. And also, hearing this music come to life is going to be amazing for me. Honestly, I don’t know how some of this will come off, which is what makes it so exciting.
The Alan Ferber Nonet plays The Jazz Gallery on Tuesday, May 26th, 2015. The group features Mr. Ferber on trombone and compositions, Scott Wendholt on trumpet, Jon Gordon on alto saxophone, John Ellis on tenor saxophone, Charles Pillow on bass clarinet, Nate Radley on guitar, Bryn Roberts on piano, Matt Clohesy on bass, and Mark Ferber on drums. Sets are at 8 and 10 p.m. $15 general admission ($10 for members) for the first set, $10 general admission ($8 for members) for the second. Purchase tickets here.