A look inside The Jazz Gallery

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If you go check out a big band show in New York, there’s a high probability that you’ll see Alan Ferber in the trombone section. He somehow seems to play with everyone—John Hollenbeck, Joel Harrison, Nicholas Urie, Pedro Giraudo, and Miguel Zenón, for starters—and morphs to fit each composer’s unique aesthetic. Recently, Ferber has added his big sound to records by indie rock trailblazers Sufjan Stevens (check out the bone-crunching hits on “All Delighted People”) and The National.  He’s also delighted audiences young and old as a performer and arranger with the Asphalt Orchestra, a genre-agnostic marching band created by the New York classical music consortium Bang on a Can.

But Ferber isn’t just a sideman’s sideman. He’s recorded several of his own albums, including 2009’s gorgeous Chamber Songs (Sunnyside) for jazz nonet and strings. This past year, Ferber released March Sublime (Sunnyside), his first record of his own big band music. We caught up with Alan by phone to talk about why he decided it was time to step out in front of a big band and how his diverse musical experiences influence his compositional voice.

The Jazz Gallery: Your musical home base has been your nonet, the core instrumentation from your last three albums. Why did you decide to augment that group into a big band for this new record, March Sublime?

Alan Ferber: My friend JC Sanford had asked me to present an ensemble for his big band series. He did say it was open to any kind of instrumentation, so I thought, “I don’t really have a big band, but because it’s a big band series, let me see if I can figure out what kind of charts I have available.” And I went through, and between all of the commissions that I had done for various schools and what not, I realized I had enough big band charts that I could pull off a little gig. I just assembled a bunch of my friends. We didn’t rehearse—we just went in and played on a Monday night and it was very relaxed.

I’ve played in a lot of big bands and I think when I heard my own music for big band that night, I was addicted from the get-go. I think part of it was some of the music that I had written for nonet; I think maybe I was subconsciously thinking about big band as I was writing it, because some of the things I ended up orchestrating for that gig were nonet tunes that I had done in the past. I fleshed them out for big band and realized, “Wow, I think these tunes are more effective as big band charts,” just the way the compositions work. I think from that experience I realized that I was really excited about fitting more of my music for big band. I just departed down that road and started arranging existing tunes and writing new tunes. One thing led to another and I had enough for an album.

TJG: You play in a ton of other big bands, and people in your band play in these other big bands, so there’s a huge amount of cross-pollination happening in this field. Does this experience working with so many other bands influence your writing for your own group?

AF: Oh, absolutely. I feel I learned how to write for big band by not only listening to a lot of music, but probably more from playing in big bands. I started my career in LA and played in a number of big bands out there, and then when I moved to New York, the variety of music that was being written for the big band format was so diverse—just so many approaches to that common instrumentation. Every single big band that I’ve played with has certainly informed how I think about writing and arranging, there’s no question about it.

Different composers and arrangers have certain things that stick with me, and when I’m adapting things to my own music, maybe those certain elements creep into my own arranging. As a trombone player, I’m sitting in the middle of the big band, so I have a good perspective on how things are put together. I’m also playing non-melodic parts—I’m playing more inner parts, textural parts—so my perspective is definitely from the inside looking out. I’m always existing in more of a counterpoint realm. When I’m playing in bands, I generally pick up on how composers and arrangers are presenting the harmony and melody and in what ways they’re creating texture, whether it be pointillistic or minimalistic, whether through use of electronic versus acoustic instruments, how they use rhythms from around the globe… It’s fun from a trombonist’s perspective.

TJG: With all these sounds and ideas flying around, do you find it difficult to distill it all into an individual voice?

AF: It’s not something I really think about so much. When I sit down to write a piece of music, I write what I hear, and if I realize that I’ve completely stolen/ripped-off someone else’s idea, but I was really honestly hearing it, that’s okay. I’ll give it up to that composer and maybe there will be an element of that particular person’s identity in my music, and I’m okay with that. When I’m writing for big band, I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel—I’m trying to write exactly what I’m hearing and be as honest as possible with what I’m trying to convey. If that means that I’m drawing from all these different sources and if that means some of my music is reminiscent of somebody else’s music, that’s totally okay with me. I consider it a complement when someone comes up to me and says, “Wow, that tune reminded me of Gil Evans.” I’m like, “Great! I love Gil Evans.”

TJG: You arrange for and perform with the quirky marching band known as the Asphalt Orchestra, and you titled this new album “March Sublime.” Where does this thread of marching music come from?

AF: Some of my earliest playing as a trombone player was in marching bands and I can’t deny that as a big influence in my musical development. I’m not one of these guys that sits around and goes to marching band competitions and checks out marching band shows, but I think there’s something extremely powerful about that tradition. The fact that there is in some cases over a hundred brass players playing all at once—there’s something extremely powerful and visceral about that idea that’s attractive to me. I played in marching band in high school and I played in marching band for a year in college at UCLA, and that was the year we went to the Rose Bowl. Playing a Rose Bowl marching band show is about as extreme as it gets. Musically, it didn’t resonate with me always, and certainly the military rigidity definitely didn’t resonate with me, but there was something just about the general power of sound that was attractive.

For this record, I think some of the tunes have a march-like quality, and in fact one of the compositions [Ferber’s arrangement of Björk’s “Hyperballad”] was originally written for the Asphalt Orchestra, so when I adapted it to big band it still had that marching aesthetic to it. But where the sublime part comes in—I wanted the power of a marching band, but wanted to mix in a lot of interesting timbres around that. To me, that’s a great part about a big band too. It can achieve that power, but it can also create this beautiful orchestral sound at the same time. So with this record, I wanted to draw on both aspects of that.

TJG: Speaking of orchestral sounds, it’s clear that your ear has drawn you to a lot of different influences, from marching music to Gil Evans to classical minimalism to contemporary electronic music. Especially with all these classical influences, would you consider your work “Third Stream” at all?

AF: There’s Third Stream elements to it, but I certainly don’t consider it Third Stream. Honestly, I haven’t listened to a lot of Third Stream music. I guess I would really need a good definition of what Third Stream really is. I think Gunther Schuller coined that term originally, and it was this marriage of classical music and jazz music…

TJG: Schuller in particular was interested in applying European serial composition techniques to jazz forms, but now guys like Bang on a Can and saxophonist/clarinetist Ken Thomson have referred to their music as “21st century Third Stream,” not necessarily sounding like classic Third Stream music, but combining classical sounds and forms with improvisation.

AF: By that definition, I definitely think it has some third stream elements, but it’s distilled through a lot of different places. Right now as a freelance trombone player, I find myself playing in all sorts of different contexts, not only in straight classical or straight jazz, but a lot of indie rock. And by indie rock, I mean that the indie rock things that I’ve done have called upon more classical-oriented brass players to put horn parts on top of these tunes. Now you’re combining all sorts of things—classical music with indie rock and some jazz as well—so worlds are starting to get really blurred.

Specifically, working with someone like Sufjan Stevens or The National or Beirut, they’re a totally different angle of Third Stream. The brass parts they write are very orchestral, very much coming out of classical music and minimalism. Specifically in Sufjan’s case, he almost wants to make the brass sound like an analog synthesizer or something. So there’s this element of bringing all these different worlds together and coalescing it into your own musical vision.

My music, in terms of Third Stream, draws on all those different elements: classical and indie rock and jazz and Latin music and all these worlds that I’ve existed in. But because I’ve weaved my way through so many permutations of those genres as a sideman, I think it shows up in a unique way in my big band writing and orchestrating.

TJG: Is writing for big band specifically your way of carving out your niche within this messy musical world you live in?

AF: Yeah. I do like writing for big band also because I like to see what kind of sounds I can pull out of it. When someone says the word “big band,” there are a lot of connotations that are very old-fashioned and stale. People think of the 1930s, of Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller and what not. It’s fun for me to draw on everything I’ve experienced and heard, and try to filter it through a big band and see what that sounds like. For me, it’s constant discovery and it’s fun because once in a while it will sound like a real traditional big band, but most of the time it will sound like this other organism. It’s inspiring to hear other composers do that as well—to see how different people pull sound out of that 17 or 18 piece instrumentation. It’s the same [instrumentation], but sounds so different from one composer to the next.

TJG: So this antiquated ensemble is especially well-equipped to deal with creating unique music in today’s saturated sound world.

AF: Definitely. I mean texturally, just think about it: there’s four trombones, four trumpets, and five saxes. Think about all the possibilities you have with those instruments, all the combinations you have with two, three, four, five, six different players—in addition to the doubles that you can use in the woodwinds, and all the mutes for the brass, not to mention the individual players. Everybody has a unique sound on their instrument. Just with the myriad of sonic combinations that you can draw from that format you can go in so many directions. I think that’s why it’s an ensemble that is still being widely used.

I also think a big reason why this ensemble still exists is that it creates a certain community that, frankly, players just love to be in. I know that whenever I show up to a big band rehearsal or recording or gig, it’s just a fun hang. It’s a great way to reconnect with people, and it’s a good number of people—not too many or too few. It just creates an instant community for three hours or however long the gig is., and that’s why I think people still want to come out and play with this ensemble.

Come celebrate Thanksgiving weekend with Alan Ferber’s Big Band at The Jazz Gallery on Friday, November 29th and Saturday, November 30th. The band features John O’ Gallagher, Will Vinson, John Ellis, Jason Rigby, and Chris Cheek on saxophone; Taylor Haskins, Scott Wendholt, Alex Norris, and Clay Jenkins on trumpet, Alan Ferber, Tim Albright, Josh Roseman, and Jeff Nelson on trombone; and Nir Felder on guitar, Leo Genovese on piano, Matt Pavolka on bass, and Mark Ferber on drums. Sets are at 9:00 and 11:00 p.m., $20 general admission and $10 for members. Purchase tickets here