Alan Ferber

Did I ever tell you that the trombone is my favorite instrument?

It's true.  My love of the trombone was instantaneous and forever.  It happened in a dark, sparsely attended memorial concert for the founder of Berklee, Lawrence Berk, during my first semester at Berklee.  Phil Wilson, the legendary trombonist and faculty member (whom I did not know at the time, but would come to know very, very well) got up and played a solo version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" that literally stopped my heart, stopped time.  Frozen.  The sound coming out of his trombone had color to it.  It was  gold.  I swear.  There was nothing and nobody else in the world except for him, his shining playing, and the moment-by-moment unfolding of this familiar yet suddenly, achingly tragic song.

I was done.  Cooked.  Ever since then, I am a sucker for a trombone every single time.

(Side note -- Phil Wilson became one of the biggest influences in my life. He is responsible for teaching me how to write a melody.  He believed in me when nobody else did.  He let me take each of his classes -- from Arranging 2, to Chord Scales, to Arranging for Big Band -- multiple times, three and four times in a row!  I wouldn't be playing music today without him.)

So you can imagine what it was like for me to meet and play with the trombone player Alan Ferber! 

You can hear Alan's playing on my Telephone Game record. He's on any track with horns.  His bass trombone kills it on "Open Window" during the long outro. 

Maybe you are not familiar with Alan.  I am familiar with him, but was totally knocked-out by reading his website to write this intro.  Check it out all the incredible work he has been doing:

Ferber’s music draws from a broad stylistic base considering the array of artists with whom he has closely worked: Esperanza Spalding, Charlie Hunter, Sufjan Stevens, the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, Peter Gabriel, Toshiko Akiyoshi, The National, Harry Connick Jr, Lee Konitz, Dr. Dre, Kenny Wheeler, John Hollenbeck, Don Byron, and They Might Be Giants. His discography lists over 100 CDs on which he has played trombone. Alan’s newest release, "March Sublime," features stunning new music for big band and has been nominated for a 2014 Grammy award in the ‘Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album’ category.

For the last four years, Alan Ferber has been recognized as one of the leading trombonists of his generation in Down Beat magazine’s International Critics’ Poll and Readers’ Poll. He has released five albums as a bandleader, all of which blur traditional boundaries through an intriguing mix of influences. The Wall Street Journal affectionately describes his music as “somehow both old school and cutting edge.”

Oh yeah!  Old school AND cutting edge.  Give me some more of that!!!

I've been wanting to do this Tenacity interview for a LONG time.   I am super excited to introduce you to Alan Ferber. 

1.  What made a difference for you along the way?  Tell me a story about that moment or moments.

I clearly remember the moment I wanted to be a jazz musician:  I was sitting in the band room of Stanley Intermediate School (where my mom drove me for lessons while I was in high school) in Lafayette, CA.  I was next to my trombone teacher, Dean Hubbard, about ten minutes before finishing up my weekly private lesson.  I asked him if it would be ok to try some jazz improvisation together.  The lessons had primarily been focused on technique up to that point. 

He pulled out a Jamey Aebersold play-along, popped it in the CD player, and a rhythm section playing a medium F blues came over the speakers.  I played over the first couple of choruses (certainly not the memorable part) and then he took over. 

A feeling of joyful disbelief washed over me as I listened and watched.  In fact, I remember more about that moment than just his playing – the fluorescent lights above me, the band instruments in the cubbies to my right, the color of his pants (tan khakis), even the smell of his cologne. 

I tape recorded that lesson and proceeded to wear it out over the next several months.  In fact, I probably still have it somewhere.  I had been playing music at that point for about 12 years (both piano and trombone) but for some reason, at that moment, I felt a feeling that went way beyond a surface appreciation. 

Perhaps a combination of his trombone sound, the ease with which he phrased and moved through the registers, his note choices…whatever it was, it changed the course of my life.   I always think about that moment when I hear the phrase, “you don’t choose music, it chooses you.”    

2.  To whom would you like to ask this same question?  Living or dead.  Why would you want to ask them?  

I’d like to ask this question to Keith Jarrett because he’s one of my biggest influences and somewhat of a mythical, untouchable being in my mind.  Just to be in a situation where I would be able ask him any question would be special.  He’s someone I’ve always admired due to his ability to connect and flow with his musical ideas in such an uninhibited and honest way.  To know where that originally stems from would likely be inspiring to me.

3.  Think back to a time when you were struggling with your music, your career, your direction.  What did you do to get out of that place, to keep going?  

One particular time in my life when I was really struggling with my music and the direction of my career came after I had been traveling for about a year with a touring Broadway show.  In terms of making a living, the gig was paying the bills, but I ultimately reached a point when I just felt creatively empty.  We had been cranking out 8 shows a week for months on end at that point.

To remedy this, I started finding pianos in our hotel lobbies and began writing and arranging music for the instrumentation I had available in the pit orchestra of the show.  Just the process of sitting down to write was so therapeutic to me. 

I started asking the musicians from time to time if they wouldn’t mind showing up a little early to the theater to read through some of my charts.  In general, they were excited to do it for the opportunity to play something different.  Hearing what I had written was so satisfying to me and somehow felt very important.  Perhaps some of that has to do with the palpable sense of good collective energy that was created when we played.  A sense of life returned to some of the orchestra members faces, particularly those who had been simply “phoning it in” at the show for the last several months. 

It was such a powerful reminder of how important it is for me to stay creatively productive, regardless of what is going on in my life.  It’s good for me and for those around me. 

When the show finally ended after a year and a half of touring, I returned to NYC with a pile of new nonet charts that I had written and called my favorite musicians to play through them.  Three records later, we’re still doing it.  In fact, I’m currently writing music for a new project with my nonet, funded through a grant from the Doris Duke Foundation.       

(This interview is part of the TENACITY series.  Read the FAQ here.)