Sunday, May 19, 2013

Review: The Matt Otto Quartet featuring Alan Ferber at Westport Coffee House

I read a startling new interview with Don Was, the president of Blue Note Records, a few hours before I attended a performance at Westport Coffee House last Thursday.

In describing his vision for Blue Note, Was explained that he intends to avoid promoting what he characterized as "selfish music."  From The Philadelphia Inquirer story:  "It's music made by self-centered [expletives] who get up on stage and say, 'Check this out, look what I can do.' We're not interested in that. We're interested in generous music."

Under Was' tenure, Blue Note has released high-profile albums by Robert Glasper, José James, Aaron Neville and Gregory Porter.  These "groove"-based artists have little in common with the music presented Thursday by a band featuring the visiting trombonist Alan Ferber, saxophonist Matt Otto, bassist Jeff Harshbarger and drummer Brian Steever.

The audience of less than twenty consisted almost entirely of musicians, the significant others of musicians, journalists and a dorky jazz blogger.  Could the low turnout be a reflection of Was' assertion about "selfish" music?

I don't think so. 

I would have gladly paid the $10 cover just to see and hear the joy-infused interaction between Harshbarger and Steever.  Besides, Otto and Ferber are notably creative composers.  The original material they brought to the gig was filled with intriguing twists and turns.  Their playing was correspondingly exceptional.  My admiration of Otto's work is extensively documented at Plastic Sax.  Ferber co-led the 2009 album In the Paint with David Binney and was a member of Esperanza Spalding's band when she appeared at the Kauffman Center last year.  Those collaborations are indicative of the forward-thinking approach displayed Thursday.

While the two sets featured plenty of solos, few could have been mistaken for self-glorifying exhibitions of technical mastery.  The only moment that might have inspired the ire of Was came during a rendition of Charlie Parker's "Visa."  Ryan Heinlein, Stan Kessler and Michael Shults contributed to a lengthy round of solos.  While each effort was exceptional, the selfless theme that had preceded the closing selection was absent.

In addition to the R&B-oriented albums mentioned above, Was has overseen new releases by jazz giants including Joe Lovano and Wayne Shorter.  The music documented on those albums may be difficult, but it's hardly selfish.  Thursday's performance in Kansas City was worthy of that robust tradition.

(The People's Liberation BIg Band will perform Ferber's compositions on Sunday, May 19, at the RecordBar.  Original image by Plastic Sax.)

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