Friday, July 19, 2013

Musical Pleasures Big and Small (Part 1) + Helping Jason Crane

Trombonist/composer/arranger Alan Ferber is one busy musician with a list of associations ranging from the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra to Peter Gabriel to Sufjan Stevens to Dr. Dre to John Hollenbeck and many more.  He has released 3 CDs with his Nonet, the last one also featuring a nonet of string players that still sings to me 3+ years after its release (my review is here).

On July 31, Sunnyside Records releases "March Sublime", music for a big band consisting of 17 musicians.  Powered by the leader's twin brother Mark (drums) and bassist Matt Pavolka, the music swaggers, struts, purrs and moves in a variety of directions on the power of Ferber's excellent melodies and harmonies.  5 of the 8 tracks are originals with the 3 remaining including saxophonist Chris Cheek's "So It Seems" (from his 2000 "Vine" CD), Bjork's "Hyper-Ballad" (from her 1995 recording "Post") and "I Get Along Without You Very Well", a song composed by Hoagy Carmichael that was a big hit in 1939 for Red Norvo and His Orchestra (and has been recorded by numerous people since including Chet Baker, Frank Sinatra, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, and Stacey Kent.)  The CD opens with "Kopi Luwak", a work Ferber composed for the American Brass Quintet - the rapidly-executed piece has both an Eastern European feel and bears the influence of Steve Reich. The voicings for the brass (4 trumpets, 4 trombones) have great strength while Pavolka's rumbling electric bass lines and Mark Ferber's driving drum work offer strong support for the solos of John O'Gallagher (alto saxophone) and Clay Jenkins (trumpet).  The 2-part "Wildwood" is the longest piece on the program;  the rubato "Intro" features the trombone section with the leader up front over the "skitterish" drums, rippling guitar backing (Anthony Wilson) and electric keyboard (David Cook).  The main part of the song is a handsome ballad, the moaning brass and reeds reading the melody.  Ferber moves out of the sectional sounds for a richly melodic - and bluesy - solo giving way to Wilson's finely constructed statement that also has blues at its core yet rises atop the rich acoustic piano chords.  At its climax Ferber returns with a second solo that is more forceful and emotionally rich.

The title track rides in on martial drumming (naturally) and electronically modified trombone before the reeds state the theme with the brass for counterpoint and an underpinning of assorted instruments playing short, repetitive figures.  The piece moves slowly but surely into the solo section for the trombone of Ferber and trumpet of Scott Wendholt.  Everyone quiets down below them save for the chattering piano, occasional guitar lines, and steady rhythm section.

"The Compass", a work originally written for his nonet (and the title of its second CD on Fresh Sounds New Talent), is not so much changed as it is "filled out."  The piece has all the earmarks of a "modern" big band work, from flowing sectional work to a rhythm that constantly shifts as it moves forward to an elongated melody line. John Ellis delivers a fine tenor sax solo followed by a playful statement from  Josh Roseman.  The trombonist starts out using a mute to modify his sound before going "natural" and pushing against the turbulent rhythm section.  The swirling sounds of the acoustic piano and electric guitar suggest a ship in a raging ocean.

"March Sublime" is all that and more.  The overall sound and approach of Alan Ferber reflects the large band sound of his contemporaries John Hollenbeck and Darcy James Argue as well as their musical mentor Bob Brookmeyer (not to forget Maria Schneider whose music channels both Brookmeyer and Gil Evans.)  Each of these people mentioned have developed in his or her own way, allowing their various musical influences to color their work, moving far beyond imitation. Alan Ferber creates music for the adventurous listener, music that allows one to get lost inside it and enjoy all the elements that come together in the individual pieces.  For more information, go to

Pianist/composer Iro Haarla may not be well known on this side of the Atlantic Ocean but the native of Finland has a decade that spans over 3 decades, including working with her drummer-husband Edward Vesala (1954-1999) for 18 years before he passed. She has also performed with trumpeter Tomasz Stanko and pianist Christian Wallumrod and joined forces with bassist Ulf Krokfors to form a duo plus a 9-piece ensemble called Loco Motife.  The bassist is a member of Ms. Haarla's Finnish-Norweigian quintet that has recorded 2 CDs for ECM, the latest being 2010's "Vespers."

Ulf Krokfors is also a member of the Iro Haarla Sextet which the pianist organized in 2009 and with whom she has recorded her latest CD, "Kolibri" (TUM Records). Besides the pianist and bassist, the group (all natives of Finland) includes the impressive young trumpeter Verneri Pohjola plus Jari Honigsto (trombone), Kari Heinila (tenor saxophone, flute, alto flute) and Markuu Ounaskari (drums). The 7 tracks, all composed by Ms. Haarla, display a bit of what might expect from a Scandinavian group (what critics and reviewers call the ECM sound) but do in fascinating directions.  For instance, the title track opens with a quiet statement from the pianist yet when the sextet enters, the music picks up its pace with the trombone blending with the flute on the theme. The piece takes its title from the Finnish word for hummingbird so it's fitting that the first solo is Heinila on flute.  Ounaskari's active drums push Pohjola into a hard-edged solo with the minimalist piano and flurry of bass notes as counterpoint.  "Legend of Cranes" has a "noisy" opening with grating notes from the bass amidst the scurrying sounds of the trombone and drums before dropping into an uptempo groove (sounding a bit like Wayne Shorter piece from the late 1960s).  There's a short drum solo leading to a dialogue with Heinila's tenor sax as the trombonist and trumpeter flutter around.    There's a darker mood to "Sad But True"yet the piece is more introspective - the melody feels like a blend of Thelonious Monk and Ornette Coleman. The pianist's solos often have the quality of one from Monk. She doesn't jump all over the keyboard but slowly builds her solos, often peaking then fading back.  The mood of "Procession" is similar, opening with long tones from the horns, picking up in tempo for a long section where the trumpet, trombone and tenor sax weave around each other, come together, move apart, supported by a rhythm inspired by Miles Davis and Gil Evans' "Sketches of Spain."  The playful flute work blends with the more solemn brass on "Spirit Bear", a piece that also features excellent drum work as well as the "Sketches of Spain" influence.

The program closes with a Sextet version of the title track from Ms. Haarla's "Vespers" CD.  While the piece is slow, the mood is lighter, peaceful, meditative, with Pohjola and Heinila (tenor sax) reaching for higher notes while Hongisto plays in the lower register of his trombone.  Krokfors' bass lines work well with the soft drum patter, certainly standing out on his solo in the middle of the piece.  When the pianist re-enters, her phrases feel like a lullaby but the music moves on to a fine trombone solo, closing with the tenor and trumpet helping the song come to an easy ending.

Iro Haarla is the leader of this Sestet but does not step out front for long periods - she often remains part of the ensemble "sound."  While there are plenty of solos, the music on "Kolibri" often feels more like an ongoing conversation, discussions where the musicians have their space but rarely talk over each other.  This recording engages the listener not with fiery rhythms or solos that blast out but with songs that challenge one to put aside his or her work and enjoy the creation.  For more information, go to
As of tonight (July 19), there are 12 days to go in "The Jazz Session" Kickstarter Campaign and Jason Crane is almost 60% of the way to his $6000. goal.  I know, and Mr. Crane understands, how crazy life can be what with job uncertainty plus rising gas and food prices.  However, he's not asking for the moon or even the cost of a predator drone (approximately $4,000,000) but just what you might spend on a 6-pack of good beer, a bottle of wine or a mid-week lunch.  For more information, go to

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