There are many reasons why organizing a big band can lead many bandleaders to question their sanity. Despite the challenges, it has become the flagship large ensemble in jazz and a vehicle for countless compositions throughout the years. There is one important element of the modern big band that can help explain its staying power: community.
In the capacity of instilling community, trombonist/composer/arranger Alan Ferber is doing major infrastructure work in the field of music. The Grammy Award nominee leads an acclaimed big band, writes and arranges for numerous international ensembles, performs and records with a “who’s who” of big band luminaries, and provides scores and seminars to many student and amateur ensembles, spreading the word of large ensembles to welcoming ears.
Ferber’s new recording Jigsaw provides ample proof that his good work is paying off. Taking material that he has lived with, either performing with his ensembles or with those led by others, Ferber revisits and re-arranges the pieces to give what he feels are the songs’ best representations. Picking originals or pieces by his peers, Ferber has generated arrangements that evolved on the bandstand, informed by the response of bandmates and audiences.
Ferber has led his big band over the past six years; it is made up of players who are not afraid to be expressive, whether in a big band or small ensemble setting. They have to be comfortable playing lyrically and melodically as well as be acute listeners who are willing to interact and feel time together. To accomplish this, Ferber assembled musicians of stylistically diverse backgrounds. In his trombone section alone there is a veteran of the Woody Herman Big Band and one of Kronos Quartet’s in-house composers.
The band features saxophonists John O’Gallagher, Rob Wilkerson, John Ellis, Jason Rigby and Chris Cheek; trombonists Ferber, John Fedchock, Jacob Garchik and Jennifer Wharton; trumpeters Tony Kadleck, Scott Wendholt, Alex Norris and Clay Jenkins; and the rhythm section of Anthony Wilson on guitar, David Cook on piano and keyboards, bassist Matt Pavolka, drummer Mark Ferber and additional percussion by Rogerio Boccato.
One of the luxuries of playing in or leading a band is connecting to audiences and fellow musicians. Ferber has experienced this with his ensembles and as a sideman in other groups. The program for Jigsaw comes from pieces that he felt really connected with listeners and participants over the past 10 years or so. All of the arrangements are new and function to serve the music, providing the best example of what these revisited pieces can be.
The program begins with “Impulso,” a grooving clavé based tune originally written for Ferber’s Nonet in the spirit of Don Byron’s Music for Six Musicians, showcasing the composer’s knack for counterpoint and rhythmic sophistication. Ferber originally played Anthony Wilson’s “She Won’t Look Back” as a member of the guitarist’s Curators ensemble. Ferber’s arrangement amplifies the drama of the composition by keeping the melody under the soloists until it reaches a climax during Wilson’s spotlight solo.
The title tune is a feature for saxophonist John O’Gallagher, feeding off his unique twelve-tone improvisational approach and allowing the saxophonist and drummer Mark Ferber a section of free playing before the sax section layers over, leading the band into the high energy composition. Written right after Katrina, the New Orleans tribute “North Rampart” is a lyrical elegy lovingly amplified by Wilson and saxophonist John Ellis. The bombastic “Get Sassy” is a bluesy trombone feature out of a fiery Mingus mold where the band goes full bore and blasts everything in its path.
There is a clearing of the air with Paul McCandless’s “Lost In The Hours,” which is a beautiful bossa nova big band piece that features some expressive additional percussion by the great Rogerio Boccato. The recording concludes with trumpeter Clay Jenkins’s “Late Bloomer,” which is an encapsulation of the trumpeter’s style of natural, motivic playing in a quirky but highly swinging closer.
Alan Ferber is providing a service that all music lovers can appreciate. He brings a sense of community by providing unifying, satisfying music and a perfect vehicle for its dissemination, the Alan Ferber Big Band. Jigsaw is an especially moving example of music with heart.
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