Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Large Ensemble Music Spring '16 (Part 1)

After 2 albums that expanded on his Nonet ensemble, 2013's "March Sublime" (big band) and 2010's "Chamber Songs" (for Nonet and strings). trombonist, composer, and arranger Alan Ferber returns to his 9-person group with "Roots & Transitions" (Sunnyside Records).  The 8 original compositions, funded by grans from Chamber Music America and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, are inspired by the birth of Ferber's first child (in 2013) with cellist Jody Redhage.

With an ensemble that includes his twin brother Mark (drums), Matt Clohesy (bass), Bryn Roberts (piano), Nate Radley (guitar), Charles Pillow (bass clarinet), John Ellis (tenor saxophone), Jon Gordon (alto saxophone) and either Scott Wendholt (6 tracks) or Shane Endsley (2 tracks) on trumpet), Ferber has sculpted a program that celebrates new life, creativity, the silence or hectic pace of living with a person that changes and grows every day plus trying to continue to carry on doing what a musician has to do. But don't expect squalling solos and skittery rhythms - instead, the listener moves through a series of reflections on a creative artist's ever-changing life.

Not surprisingly, the music starts on softer notes with "Quiet Confidence", an elegant melody that slowly grows from the trombonist's opening melody, adding other voices until we reach the theme, an expansion on the line one hears at the onset.  The rhythm section arrives around the 2-minute mark but the music continues on its slow pace adding solos from Roberts and the leader. The pieces stops around the 7-minute mark but there's a lovely rubato coda that leads into the .63 second "Hourglass", a chorale for the reeds and brass. The pace picks up with "Clocks" (if you have ever been awakened by a baby in the middle of the night, you know how often one looks at a clock), a bit more frenetic with the melody line and the rhythm section pushing forward, often atop the hypnotic piano chords. Short but powerful solos by Endsley, Gordon, Radley, and drummer Ferber follow.

The opening stop-and-start rhythms as well as the swinging melody section easily push "Wayfarer" forward while "Flow" follows, a poly-rhythmic treat that moves stealthily as if on tip-toes with an intensity that keeps building and climaxes with an exchange between Wendholt and Radley.  "Perspective" is calmer, introspective, with a slowly developing melody that opens to solos from Clohesy, Pillow, and a long, powerful, statement from John Ellis.  Ferber spreads the melodic material around on "Echo Calling" with the sections and the drummer creating a complex call-and-response.  The final tracks, "Cycles", builds from the playful give-and-take of muted trumpet, saxophone, and drums (Mark Ferber can really lay down the funk grooves), adding voices until the brass and reeds play the theme before Ellis plays a mighty solo.  A quick return to the circular, percussive, melody with all the voices riffing.  As the tempo slows, Gordon and Alan Ferber rise out of the mix for short solos before the guitar, bass, piano and drums quietly put the piece and album to bed.

Over the past decade+, Alan Ferber has created a body of music for his Nonet (and subsidiaries) that acknowledges the foundations of jazz and continues to move forward.  "Roots & Transitions", his 5th CD as a leader, is mature music that swings, that tells stories, that has moments of joy and wonder, shows the strength of Ferber as a composer, arranger, and soloist. Since his Nonet debut, he has displayed the understanding of how to write to the strengths of an ensemble and the individual voices within. Each album has been a treat for the avid listener. And, now with parenthood, he's found new modes of expression.

For more information, go to To hear selections from the album, go to

French hornist, composer, and arranger Justin Mullens seems to be equally attracted to jazz and mythology, in particular Old English and Greek. With his 16-member Delphian Jazz Orchestra, he released 2 albums on Fresh Sound New Talent, 2003's self-titled recording with music inspired by the legend of "Beowulf" and 2009's "Tales of Pan and Eyes of Argus."  For his new CD,
"The Cornucopiad" (BJU Records), his original music is based in Greek mythology plus he re-arranges 3 jazz standards plus he creates 5 "sonic portraits" with multi-tracked French horn and guitars (played by long-time associate and co-producer Pete Thompson).

Vacant Eye Photography
And, he has pared the band down to 8. Besides his French horn and Thompson's guitar, the octet features Chris Cheek (alto sax, clarinet), Peter Hess (bass clarinet), Ohad Talmor (tenor sax), Desmond White (bass), Matt Ray (piano), and Marko Djordjevic (drums).  The program opens with a rousing reading of Freddie Hubbard's "Hub-tones", built on the active drums, the insistent guitar chords, and walking bass lines.  Mullens takes the first solo, displaying his "bop chops" with a bow towards one of the first jazz French hornists, Julius Watkins (1921-1977).  After the mini-portrait (.22 seconds) "Mr. Squeaks", Mullens' "Amalthea" (named for the goat-nymph that raised Zeus) blends a handsome melody and horn arrangement (the blend of brass, sax and bass clarinet is striking), the solo section includes a melodic turn from bassist White, the leader, and pianist Ray.

If you strictly follow the song order, you'll see that Mullens pairs each standard with an original (sometimes split by a mini-portrait. The smart arrangement of Nacio Brown's classic "You Stepped Out of a Dream" (strong solos from the leader, Thompson and Hess) is followed by Mullens' "The Goatfish" (dedicated to Amalthea's son Aegipan who grew alongside Zeus).  The latter tune, with serious rock music inflections (especially from the guitar), really jumps atop the forceful drumming (funky, at times, as well) - listen closely to hear how Thompson's overdubbed guitar interacts with Ray's electric piano, subtly and tastefully. There is a lovely arrangement of John Coltrane's "Naima", replete with a handsome ensemble reading of the melody and a splendid alto sax solo from Chris Cheek.  That's paired with a hard-swinging "The River Horn" (relating to the battle between Heracles and river god Achelous - in the fight, Achelous's horn is torn off and he trades Amalthea's horn, the cornucopia, for his own.) The song is much more upbeat than the story, with sparkling solos supported by a very active rhythm section.

The best way to enjoy "Cornucopiad" is to listen to the program all the way through a number of times; that's really how you hear how the various stories are connected. Justin Mullens is such a talented arranger/composer, creating music that not only illustrates the ensemble's talents but also illuminates their fine soloing, all in the service of a fascinating story

For more information, go to

Here's the Octet in action for April 10, 2016 with Art Hirahara sitting in for pianist Matt Ray:

The modern big band often takes its cues from the music and arrangements of Bob Brookmeyer, Thad Jones, and Gil Evans.  Christopher Zuar, born Long Island, New York in 1987, went to the New England Conservatory to study with Brookmeyer (1929 - 2011) and also met pianist Frank Carlberg. After graduation, he went on to study at the Manhattan School of Music with Jim McNeely (also a Brookmeyer and Jones disciple).

The debut album of the Christopher Zuar Orchestra has just been issued on Sunnyside Records.  "Musings", produced by composer/ arranger Mike Holober, features 18 of the best musicians in New York City, many of whom play with or have played on albums by Maria Schneider, the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, Alan Ferber, Joel Harrison, Darcy James Argue, and with Ryan Truesdell's Gil Evans Project.  The reed section features Dave Pietro, Ben Kono, Jason Rigby, Lucas Pino, and Brian Landrus.  The brass section features the trumpets and flugelhorns of Tony Padlock, Jon Owens, Mat Jodrell and Matt Holman while the trombonists include the afore-mentioned Alan Ferber, Matt McDonald, Tim Albright and Max Seigel (bass 'bone).  The rhythm section is top-notch with Pete McCann (electric & acoustic guitars), Frank Carlberg (piano, Fender Rhodes), John Hébert (acoustic & electric bass), and Mark Ferber (drums).  Guests include Rogerio Boccato (percussion on 3 tracks) and the wordless vocals of Joy Lawry (4 tracks).  Zuar not only arranged and conducted the ensemble but also composed 7 of the 8 songs, the exception being "7 Anéis" from the pen of Egberto Gismonti.

From the opening moments of "Remembrance", one can hear that Zuar has a gift for soaring melody lines, understands the dynamics of the rhythms section, and utilizes his horns and brass wisely.  The brilliance of the sound - kudos to engineer Mike Marciano and the mixing engineer Brian Montgomery - allows all the musicians to be heard.  Hébert's mobile bass lines move in and around Ferber's powerful drums while Carlsberg's "foundational" piano chords and counterpoint are echoed in the brass and reeds (in the early part of the piece, Landrus's bass clarinet stands out and then is absorbed into the seas of saxophones). The appropriately-titled "Chaconne" is a lovely work with its blend of low horns and higher reeds on the melody giving way to a handsome Carlberg solo over the intelligent bass lines and splendid brush work.  Soon, the rest of the ensemble filters in and theres a lovely exchange between saxes, flutes, trumpets and trombones before the piano solo continues.

What is also noticeable throughout the album is the influence of Maria Schneider's expansive arrangements, use of wordless vocals, and sweeping melodic passages. The essence of Ms. Schneider's "Buleria, Soleá Y Rumba" can be heard on Zuar's arrangement of Gismonti's "7 Aneis", down to the use of acoustic guitar and voice. The piece is brilliant, a wonderful mix of dynamic rhythms that support Jason Rigby's fiery soprano sax solo - even the horns and brass are playing "rhythm".

The exceptions are notable.  The funky "Ha! (Joke's On You)", at times, resembles one of Thad Jones' piece but updated. Guitarist McCann stands out with his "wah-wah" accompaniment plus his blazing solo. Drummer Ferber, who definitely the driver of this band, gets a rollicking solo joined by the "shakers" of Boccatto and the "popping" electric bass, taking the song out on a raucous note.  The drive and fire of "Vulnerable States" with its intense rhythms and shifting intensity, plus the use of Ms. Lawry's voice as the precursor to the horn arrangement, piano and alto sax solos (Ben Kono on alto), is adventurous, exciting, and rewarding. The short but lovely "Lonely Road" is a wondrous showcase for muted brass, flutes. clarinets, and Kono's handsome oboe playing.

"Musings" is quite the opening salvo for young Christopher Zuar.  While one can certainly hear his various influences, one can also tell he has the intelligence and drive to continue to absorb the sounds of his mentors and make something new. This is a exciting debut that grows on the ears with each listen.

For more information, go to

Here's the first track:

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