INTERVIEW: DAVID FERRIS (new Septet album and tour starts 26 Feb)

The David Ferris Septet with Maria Väli – going out on the road.
Photo credit: © Emily Dove

David Ferris is a familiar figure on the Birmingham scene at the keyboard in many different situations, from Ben Lee’s Quintet to Birmingham Jazz Orchestra and the funk-jazz trio Three Step Manoevre. In addition he co-promotes with Chris Young the weekly Tuesday night sessions at The Spotted Dog which have developed a reputation for great gigs. Now David has stepped out front to lead his own band, a Septet plus One. There’s an album and a tour. He spoke to Peter Bacon

LondonJazz News: You’ve been very active on the Birmingham scene for a good few years but with the Septet you really step out front as leader with your own name there in the title of the band. What took you so long? (Are you a more natural collaborator – as in Three Step Manoeuvre?)

David Ferris: I hadn’t even thought of it like that to be honest! The idea of putting together some kind of larger ensemble had been kicking around in my head pretty much since I graduated from Birmingham Conservatoire in the Summer of 2015. I had some vague notions of some music I’d like to write in my head – things involving counterpoint and richer colours that would benefit from more voices in the band. It took a while to get going – I’m pretty awful at getting on with the writing without some kind of deadline – so eventually I booked a couple of gigs in Birmingham in October 2016 to force me to sort it out (if I remember rightly I wrote a tune on the morning of the first gig…)

They were great though – the band were a hoot to play with, the tunes seemed to bed in really well and the audience response was really positive. In my head I think I’d almost been viewing them as a trial run, and if I had a good time I’d keep doing it!

I guess you are right though – I am definitely more naturally inclined to be a collaborator, but I think my experience in these collaborative groups (Three Step Manoeuvre, Birmingham Jazz Orchestra, Ferris/Lee/Weir, etc) as well as doing a fair few projects as a sideman have hopefully made me a better bandleader now. I hope this band still works as a democracy though – with a group of guys in the band like I’m lucky to have, I’d be an idiot not to listen to them!

David Ferris
Photo credit: © Emily Dove

LJN: The Septet is a real showcase for your writing. How do you go about composing, from what do you take inspiration, and who are your chief influences as a composer?

DF: I always find this a really tricky question to answer! I don’t think I really have a process to be honest – some things seem to just write themselves naturally and some require weeks of teasing in really technical and nerdy ways. However I find I’m rarely drawn to music for technical reasons, and I suppose what really inspires me is hearing some kind of human warmth?  I’ve just had a look at the ‘recently listened’ on my iTunes for some suggestions of what that actually means, and it told me I’ve been checking out a lot of Wayne Shorter, The Beatles, John Scofield and Paul Simon – they all definitely fit the bill for me even though musically speaking they’re pretty diverse. I don’t think I write particularly complex music – I love old-fashioned song forms, riffs, and Blakey tunes too much I guess – but I feel you can get a lot out of the simpler things. Maybe part of this comes from playing funk music with Three Step Manoeuvre – James Brown taught us that if you’ve played one chord for five minutes, going to the next chord is going to feel massive, even if it’s the ‘most obvious’ chord you could choose!

LJN: Tell us about the other seven musicians, how you chose them, what you value in their contributions (and maybe explain why this is an eight-piece septet)?

DF: I’m a pretty happy man about this – I feel like I’ve put together some kind of Midlands all-stars!  I think what drew me to the other musicians was probably the same thing I talked about before – they are all such warm and beautiful communicators, in different ways.  Take the horn players as a starting point – Richard Foote on trombone has this incredible extrovert excitement coupled with an absolute discipline in the ensemble playing, Vittorio Mura on tenor and bari has an incredible breadth of inflection and colour that sounds like a history of the instrument in one person, Hugh Pascall on trumpet has the most beautiful, elegant and melodic delivery I know, and finally Chris Young on alto is an absolute fireball of energy at all times.

Then Euan Palmer and Nick Jurd are the perfect rhythm section, equally happy laying down grooves as they are pushing the ensemble and soloists. Basically I’ve put together a band where I’m happy to just sit back and listen! For the upcoming tour and album the final crucial element was our special guest vocalist, Maria Väli. Maria is Estonian and is based in Tallinn, but I first met her as part of the exchange with Trondheim Conservatory whilst I was studying at Birmingham. We played together at Cheltenham and Molde Jazz Festivals, and, thanks to the help of Tony Dudley-Evans, we managed to get her back over for Cheltenham again the following year. Since then I’ve been looking for an opportunity to work with her again – she can sing literally anything (look up the group Estonian Voices if you want to see a thorough representation of what the human voice can do!) but she does it so beautifully and with such an astonishing versatility of approaches that I just knew she would be the perfect singer for just about any music I might throw at her!

LJN: The band has its first CD coming out and a substantial tour beginning soon. Give us an idea of what we can expect…

DF: Yes! A large part of the impetus behind the writing for this album came from my love of songwriters, and the craft of creating something that feels like it can be called a ‘song.’ This goes right back to the people who wrote the standards – Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Harold Arlen et al. I think it’s easy to forget but next time you get a chance just have another listen to something we take for granted like All The Things You Are or My Foolish Heart and just see how perfectly it all fits together – the melody, the harmony, the words, the structure. There’s something of that crystalline perfection in Lennon/McCartney as well – Can’t Buy Me Love is barely two minutes long but says everything it wants to!

Then I think two of the biggest influences on me are probably Paul Simon and Donald Fagen – both of them have a way of taking a slightly oblique lyric and using the music to make it mean something to us, even if we’re not sure what that is! I was desperate to tap into this with the music for the album but didn’t trust my skills as a lyricist, so I turned to some of the most beautiful words I knew, and set to music poetry by Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, WH Auden and WB Yeats. The album’s title, Alphabets, comes from a Heaney poem about him learning to write, and falling in love with words and letters. It felt relevant to my experience with music too! There are a couple of other things on there as well – Chorale is the result of some thoroughly unqualified messing about I did with classical counterpoint, and Fred is a tribute to one of my heroes, Fred Hersch. But hopefully it’s all music that will make people feel good – I really want to channel that warmth all my idols have and communicate with the listener.

LJN: Any particular thank-yous, you’d like to make public?

DF: So many! Making a band like this work doesn’t happen without lots of help. To Help Musicians UK/Peter Whittingham Award and Arts Council England for helping to fund the tour – it takes quite a lot to keep eight people housed fed and watered on tour. To the Estonian Embassy in the UK for helping us get Maria over – it’s the 100th anniversary of the birth of Estonia this year and they’re doing loads of great work to celebrate. To Alexis Ffrench at Uppingham School for letting us use their beautiful Recital Room and Fazioli piano to record on absolutely free of charge, Phil Woods at Symphony Hall for all his help securing funding and for putting up with me not ever understanding how to fill in forms, Luke Morrish-Thomas for capturing the vibe of the music so perfectly in recording, Carys Boughton for the stunning artwork (feels like a waste that it’s just going on an album cover!) and finally to the musicians themselves for just being wonderful.


26 – North Devon Jazz Club, Appledore
27 – St Ives Jazz Club, Cornwall
28 – Restormel Arts, St Austell, Cornwall

1 – NewGen Jazz, Cambridge
2 – Symphony Hall, Birmingham
4 – JazzLeeds
5 – Jazz at the Peer Hat, Manchester
6 – Jazz at the Spotted Dog, Birmingham
7 – The Flute and Tankard, Cardiff
8 – The Vortex, London

The new CD, Alphabets, will be available on the tour and on David’s website, and on general release before too long.

LINK: David Ferris’s website

Categories: miscellaneous

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