A few months after trombonist/composer Alan Ferber released his last album, March Sublime, his wife Jody gave birth to their first child, a son named Theo. The news of March Sublime’s nomination for a 2014 Grammy Award was shared on social media, garnering one particularly memorable comment from a fellow musician: “All this time I’ve been thinking having kids was BAD for a career. You have proved otherwise!” An undoubtedly well-meaning comment, it nevertheless made Alan more sensitive toward how he would reconcile his new life as a father with the demands of creating original music. The need to confront this balancing act quickly became a reality when Alan was awarded the New Jazz Works grant from Chamber Music America to create a 60-minute original piece.
There is nothing like the birth of a child to make a new parent reexamine, well, everything. Over the first several months of his son’s life, Ferber became intrigued and engrossed by the process of human growth and development, seeming to cycle through periods of relative calm and “rootedness,” versus periods of “transition” involving tension, chaos, and rapid change.
Ferber noticed how these cycles correlate with his own growth as a composer. His new work, Roots & Transitions, written for his Nonet, is an exploration of these ideas through the process of crafting music. In Roots & Transitions, Ferber begins with tiny cell musical motives, and through the movements, drives them through cycles of calm/rootedness versus turbulence/transition, allowing the overall composition to run parallel to the growth and development unfurling in his personal life.
After several years of focusing on big band writing, Ferber’s return to his long-standing Nonet allows a more subtle interaction between individual parts, creating increased intimacy in this intricate new work. For the past 10 years, Ferber has led his Nonet made up of five horns and four rhythm instruments, represented here by either Scott Wendholt or Shane Endsley on trumpet, alto saxophonist Jon Gordon, tenor saxophonist John Ellis, bass clarinetist Charles Pillow, guitarist Nate Radley, pianist Bryn Roberts, bassist Matt Clohesy and drummer Mark Ferber. The size of the ensemble allows for a wide variety of tonal colors and textures while being more lithe than a big band.
With the deadline of a year to write, Ferber began to compose for his new project, though in a different way than he used to. His new responsibilities as a father cut down the time he once had available for devoting equal attention toward both the trombone and the piano (his main compositional tool). He began to try something new: writing music away from the piano and focusing on the trombone as his vehicle for composition. Though arduous at first, this approach ultimately led him to simpler, more direct “seed” ideas from which to spin out more developed song forms, rhythms, and harmonic structures. A trombone-centric approach to writing involves the intimate act of bringing your lips into contact with a piece of metal in order to produce sound through vibrations. The compositional advantage of this is that it allows you to both hear and feel what you are creating. The wide range of moods and physical conditions he found himself cycling through directly impacted what came out of his horn and thus greatly affected the arc of Roots & Transitions.
It took a year for Ferber to complete these pieces. There was a focused period of four months where most of the music took shape. Then there was a maturing process through a handful of performances and edits, after which the fully conceptualized piece was ready to be recorded.
As has been mentioned, the seed of this eight-movement work is a single melodic motif, rhythmically, a 3 feel over 4/4 time that recurs throughout. From that seed grows the entire work. There are dramatics from the beginning, as in the dawning “Quiet Confidence” and bombastic “Clocks.” The more traditionally jazz oriented “Wayfarer” provides an excellent counterbalance to the contemporary feel of “Flow,” which seems to blossom as it goes. The poetic “Perspective” is warm and well wrought and “Echo Calling” is hauntingly beautiful as it swells. The journey culminates with its most dynamic movement “Cycles,” which finishes unresolved, as the growing process never ends.
Many composers and writers talk about the process, referring only to their craft. There is also the process that all humans undergo, which informs the art just as much as the person. Alan Ferber has studied the effect of these two on each other and has created a tremendous work of art in his new Nonet recording Roots & Transitions.
released April 29, 2016
Alan Ferber - composer, trombone
Scott Wendholt - trumpet (Tracks 1, 2, 4-7)
Shane Endsley - trumpet (Tracks 3 & 8)
Jon Gordon - alto sax
John Ellis - tenor sax
Charles Pillow - bass clarinet
Nate Radley - guitar
Bryn Roberts - piano
Matt Clohesy - bass
Mark Ferber - drums