Roots & Transitions: Jazz Gallery Interview
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: Yes, I wrote most of it, and then sent it to Sunnyside to edit it. It’s a project that I’m intimately connected with 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 grow more complex. When he enters the world, you see it play out in front of you. This was inspiring to me, from a musical perspective.
Out of necessity, I didn’t have the time to focus on trombone and composition as two separate activities. I started to practice more compositionally on the trombone. I was coming up with little motives and seed ideas on an instrument that has severe limitations. For instance, I can’t play a chord on the trombone. I can’t have the immediate gratification of a chord voicing, which in a way is advantageous. I realized that I had to come up with material, even if it was just a three- or four-note idea, that was compelling. Once I came up with a seed, I allowed the idea to gestate over a long 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, my wife and I were out for my birthday and he was with a new 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. Consequently, there’s a movement called “Clocks” on the album, which is very edgy and not terribly warm and comforting.
TJG: On “Clocks,” Jon Gordon and Nate Radley’s solos are absolutely huge.
AF: Yes. 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, had sort of been subconsciously stolen from a free improvisation I had heard on one of Jon Gordon’s records. It was drawn from an improvisation between him and Bill Charlap. It’s this strange and beautiful intervallic seed idea, and it became the main idea for “Clocks.” It felt appropriate to have Jon solo over it.
TJG: Did he know where you’d taken the idea from?
AF: He didn’t, until I told him. He was like “Oh. Really?” And I actually saw Bill Charlap the other night and told him too, and he had a similar reaction. [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.
TJG: When you embarked on this project, you must’ve anticipated some of the challenges associated with your circumstances. What were some of the most unexpected elements?
AF: To be honest, the switch to trombone was not planned, which caught me off guard. That was a direct result of a necessity. I had no intention of composing this thing on trombone. The fact that that happened was new and surprising. The other thing that caught me off guard was that as a jazz musician and composer, I had always sort of just written one tune at a time, maybe months between tunes, until I said “Oh, I’ve got eight tunes, I guess I should do a record now.” This concept of writing a piece stemmed from having this limited amount of time to write a lot of music, which I had never done. I didn’t really think about it until midway, but I realized that these motivic seed ideas were beginning to travel across the pieces. I would be writing more than one thing at once, and one thing would generate an idea for another, and things were happening simultaneously. Different but related ideas were coming together just by the fact that I had this short window of time to write. And I did put a concentrated three or four months into writing the piece. It turned into a piece connected by motives, and I hadn’t written that way before. I also began thinking about myself as an improviser, and wondering how I could incorporate that into my compositional process. I’ve never been a chord-scale type of player. I’ve taken to more of a ‘playing and embellishing melodies’ approach to improvisation. This way of using motifs creates a longer and more exciting story, with a newfound depth and dimension. The more you listen to and revisit this music, the more you’ll hear.
TJG: So, themes talking between movements, ideas developing over time; as you were constructing and composing, how did your process look? Did you have lots of recordings, were you doing it all on paper, were you using a computer? What was your approach?
AF: I had an initial sketch that had most of the information that permeates the piece. That sketch is the eighth movement. I had done this sketch beforehand, which stemmed from a bass-line figure. I wrote a one-page sketch, and ended up always having it next to me, because when I started running out of ideas, I’d mine that sketch for more material. The bass-line is a rhythmic minor-seventh figure. I’d take that and try inverting it, and used that subsequent diad at the beginning of “Clocks.” That’s an example of taking a linear melody from the trombone and organizing those notes in multiple ways. There are a lot of melodic ideas from the initial sketch that permeate the other movements. They’re the primary motifs that are present throughout the piece.
The other thing is that I worked almost entirely with pencil and paper. I really wanted to stay in my imagination for as long as possible. I wanted to stay away from the computer, and even the piano, because I knew that those things might start to make musical decisions for me. I didn’t want to orchestrate things too early on. I wanted to keep things linear and contrapuntal. I had a lot of pencil sketches that I was working with as well. When I exhausted what I could do on the horn, I moved to the piano. I’m a composer-pianist, not a true pianist, so the piano was still limiting as well. So I’d move an idea to the piano, and find harmonic ideas that worked around the linear ideas, and would lastly move to the computer for final development.
TJG: As a trombone player, would you say to yourself, “I should be able to do everything on trombone, I don’t want to use the piano or computer; all I need is my imagination?” Did you ever feel concerned if you felt an urge to move to the piano?
AF: I just wanted to be sure I had developed a strong enough concept of what I wanted musically and emotionally before moving away from the trombone. If I stay away from a harmonic instrument for long enough, I can really start hearing a full orchestral sound in my head. If I give myself enough time to meditate on the idea, I can create the sense of having an entire band in the room with me.
Then, all I have to do is go to the piano and find the sounds I’m imagining. It’s ultimately so much easier to take that approach than if you’re going to the piano and are just like “Uhhhh, let’s see, I’ll plunk this random thing out, and eh, this is really cool, and…” It’s much harder and more frustrating that way for me. You don’t know what you want and what mood you’re trying to strike.
TJG: I’m thinking of the horn backgrounds at the end of your solo on “Quiet Confidence.” They’re so low, rich, smooth, and powerful. How did you ultimately decide on the nonet as your configuration?
AF: Well, this is my fifth album with the nonet. It is a band and instrumentation that I know. I had been working on big band intensely for three years and felt the urge to thin things out and work on more chamber music again. I actually really missed the one-player-per-part orchestration. In a big band, you’re more often than not playing in unison with someone else. Playing with the nonet feels naked in comparison.
Those backgrounds on “Quite Confidence” actually are the melody of the song, voiced in a couple of instruments as a mid-ground texture. I like to use melodies as melodic backgrounds that I can improvise with, contrapuntally. That melody is very long tone-oriented, very slow paced, so it’s conducive to that approach. And that concept ties the piece together.
TJG: Once you came to the end of the compositional process–writing and editing, then rehearsing, releasing, publishing, and now touring–were there any loose ends that you felt like you didn’t really have time to touch on in the piece? Did you have goals that you didn’t have time to reach, or ideas you’d like to revisit for a future project?
AF: That’s hard to answer, in a way. One thing that always frustrates me is the difficulty in finding enough opportunities to simply perform large ensemble music. I tend to make a lot of large ensemble recordings. After things are recorded and distributed, I face the Herculean challenge of actually booking it. Touring with a nonet and a big band is really difficult—there’s a lot stacked against you. That always creates some frustration for me. This love for large ensemble music and ensemble-based music is unlike a trio, a far more viable touring unit. Financially, it’s rare that I can make the nonet happen. I put a lot of work into my records, and I did a lot of rewrites of this project, but there are some things in the music that, as an ensemble, we could take the music to new and different places if we had the opportunity to play it more. But with months between performances, it feels hard to gain momentum on the music that way.
So the next step is trying to figure out how to play it more. One thing I’ve thought about is traveling with certain people that can help cohere things. Perhaps I’d travel with three or four core people, then get locals from wherever we go. That might make it possible to make some strong statements in a short amount of time. I’m here in Kansas City now, and these guys haven’t played the music before, and it’s sounding very good. But you always wonder what could happen with just a few more dates. So that’s the next frontier for me. Making the music has been relatively easy to do, but creating opportunities for the next frontier is the challenge.
TJG: Well, we’ll be looking out for what you do next. We can’t wait to see what happens.
AF: Thank you! And the upcoming Jazz Gallery shows are so meaningful. The Gallery has been an incubator and has provided space for me over the years to try all these ideas and experiments. The first ensemble that Rio allowed me to try was my nonet, years ago, in a project that I did with strings. To return with this ensemble is cool. And it’s nice to have a relationship with a place whose mission is to provide a space for people to try new things out. Rio is such an influential figure on the New York scene for that reason. She allows people these opportunities to try new things. You need to have that feedback of what it’s like to play new music for a live audience in order to move forward.
Interview by Noah Fishman