Alan Ferber Nonet Up High Down Low

The Alan Ferber Nonet Takes It ‘Up High, Down Low’

Alan Ferber plays a large (trombone) musical instrument with a massive sound, leads a big band of nine, and arranges the material in a spacious manner.

Up High, Down Low
Alan Ferber Nonet
21 July 2023

As far as I know, there are no connections between jazz trombonist/composer Alan Ferber and the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Edna Ferber other than their last names. However, although the two work in entirely different fields, they share much in common regarding their conceptual approach to their art. Both paint on large canvasses. Edna wrote big novels whose titles Giant, So Big, Ice Palace) suggest the size and importance of their contents. She cut a strong figure at the Algonquin Table in New York with her wit and talent.

Alan plays a large musical instrument with a big sound, leads a sizeable band of nine, and arranges the material in a spacious manner. The songs soar and dip as the music moves from instrument to instrument with breadth and depth. He encourages the players to express their mastery with solos and harmonize with each other in innovative ways. Consider Jon Gordon’s alto saxophone showcase lead on Alan’s original “Violet Soul”, followed by other horns moving in and blending in harmony. The effect turns the emotional aspect of the song into something more spiritual and shared.

Besides Alan and Gordon, the Nonet features Scott Wendholt (trumpet & flugelhorn), John Ellis (tenor saxophone), Chris Cheek (baritone saxophone), Nir Felder (guitar), David Cook (piano, organ, keyboards), Matt Clohesy (acoustic & electric bass), Charles Pillow (alto flute, clarinet, bass) and Alan’s identical twin brother Mark on drums & percussion. Up High, Down Low mixes original Ferber compositions with that of others, including Joni Mitchell‘s “Cherokee Louise”, Norah Jones‘ “Day Breaks”, and the Harry Warren classic “The More I See You”.

Although Up High, Down Low was not written as a concept album, the songs work best when the record is played from beginning to end. The tracks have merit individually but, played collectively, reveal the diverse talents of Ferber and the Nonet. Think of it analogously to Edna’s American Beauty, a family saga in which the individuals and generations are intimately connected. Each member has a story to tell like each player does here.

That said, there are highlights: there’s the buoyancy of the title track when all the instruments seem to crash into a joyful cacophony; Ferber’s trombone on Joni Mitchell’s “Cherokee Louise” expressively sings over the grand tones of the background players; Ferber’s composition “In Hindsight” wonderfully features Ellis and Cheek communing on saxophones over a sweet and languid beat. There are musical surprises everywhere, as having such an extensive line-up of talented musicians allows Ferber to add and subtract players. He brings them in (or takes them out) as needed to create tension and pleasure, whether it be a light touch of baritone saxophone here or the blare of multiple horns there. How it fits in the song matters most.

Edna used words for a civic purpose as well as for artistic reasons. She wanted to expose the greed of corporate villains, the injustice of racism, the unequal distribution of wealth, and other such social and economic issues in the America of her time. Alan speaks in a language without words. His art connects to the listeners’ ears, brains, and souls, who each understand in their own way. Jazz is a way of communicating more abstractly than everyday discourse. Alan recognizes the richness of being alive and like Edna says in one of her most popular works, urges us to Come and Get It.

RATING 8 / 10