David Ferris Septet plus Maria Väli – Alphabets
(David Ferris. CD review by Peter Bacon)
I’ve heard David Ferris play many times, sometimes on piano, often on organ, in various pubs and venues around Birmingham and the Midlands, always in the bands of others. I’m not sure I have ever heard a Ferris composition. So it was with great interest and sense of anticipation that I slid this disc (all the music is Ferris’s) into the player and pressed play.
The size of the band is a real plus: a septet with a four-horn frontline is big enough to be able to write substantial arrangements for, while being small enough to be agile and intimate when necessary. And it is clear from the opening Chorale that Ferris is enjoying that scope. His horn writing is every bit as characterful and considered as I have always found his chord choices as a pianist.
For six of the eight tracks the instruments of Ferris (piano), Hugh Pascall (trumpet), Richard Foote (trombone), Chris Young (alto and soprano saxophones), Vittorio Mura (tenor and baritone), Nick Jurd (bass) and Euan Palmer (drums) are joined by the vocals of Maria Väli. The words she sings come from Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, WB Yeats and WH Auden.
It’s a shrewd move to use poetry as the lyrics because it gets away from the cliches not only of moon/June lyrics but, crucially, of conventional song structure and metre too. And Ferris clearly enjoys that challenge.
The centerpiece of the album is the title track, a Seamus Heaney poem and a not insubstantial one for a singer to convey coherently – there are 16 verses! Väli delivers it clearly against a motif from the rhythm section which grows more free and improvisatory as the poem progresses. The horn arrangement acts as comment and stress behind the words, with instrumental breakouts between the three parts of the poem, the second a Mura tenor solo of muscularity and swirling drama. It’s a really thorough piece of orchestration while also giving vocalist and instrumentalists freedom of expression.
For my money, the album’s pinnacle might be placed a little early (it’s track two) but, what the hell, Crow Hill would be glorious wherever it fell in the track listing. The Ted Hughes poem is given an irresistibly attractive melody – it’s been playing in my head throughout the days since I first heard it – and, again, the orchestration is admirably thorough, with a catchy two-part descending motif leading into a terrific alto solo from Young (I can’t count the number of times I have heard a strong solo from the always flat-capped, always affable Chris Young, both live and in other recordings, but this is the best I have ever heard him: lyrical, gutsy, with just the right grittiness of tone when needed, – a real tour-de-force). And when that solo flows into the melody line re-arranged for the horns, the piece soars high and seemingly effortlessly, creating a tailwind which Väli is happy to catch.
As complements to the quite sombre drama of these two tracks, there are lighter moments on the album: Song, another Heaney, has a gentler, more relaxed groove; The Willow-Wren And The Stare is the jolly, witty Auden-based closer, though I think I prefer Ferris in his more dramatic, darker-toned frame of mind.
There have been many intelligent albums made by young UK musicians impressively literate not only in music but in other things besides. What sets this, bird-themed one apart from an awful lot of them – and it might be a purely personal thing of mine – is that it never sounds “worthy”, neither does listening to it feel like a “duty”. Alphabets is not only a hugely impressive work, it’s a bloody great listen too.
This album was made with support from Help Musicians UK, and very well spent their money has been.