David Ferris Septet plus Maria Väli ‘Alphabets’ CD (Private Press) 4/5

Alphabets is an intriguing album. It’s the debut release from Birmingham based pianist and composer David Ferris. Featuring some of the most exciting young musicians in the Midlands, Ferris has used poetry, sung by Estonian vocalist Maria Väli, to accompany his compositions. Whether the music was inspired by the poetry, or added as part of the writing I’m not sure, but in general it works very well indeed.

Pianist Ferris is joined on this recording by Hugh Pascall on trumpet, Richard Foote on trombone, Chris Young on alto and soprano saxophones, Vittorio Mura on tenor and baritone, Nick Jurd on bass and Euan Palmer on drums.

This is a septet with a big sound. The arrangements are bold and strong, with a thick, deep brass sound coursing its way through most of the tunes. The four-horn frontline sparkles with the composer’s pulsating arrangements, with a freshness that heralds a serious composer-in-the-making.

Originally formed in 2016, the band’s initial influences ranged from Fred Hersch to John Scofield to Wayne Shorter. However, with the addition of vocals and lyrics, this album also draws on songwriters ranging from Jerome Kern and Harold Arlen, to Paul Simon and Donald Fagen.

The lyrics used to accompany Ferris’ music are based largely on the work of British poets Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, WB Yeats and WH Auden. Whilst the music sits well with the lyrics, there are times where I felt a different voice could have been used more effectively to sing some of the lyrics. Maria Väli’s crystalline voice is in some ways the perfect foil for the powerful brass lines and rich melodies, but a deeper, more resonant voice might have worked better on some of the pieces.

Ferris manages to combine orchestrated drama with expressive improvisation on a grand scale. There are some simply fabulous group moments along with some exemplary soloing. His arrangements are top-drawer, with a seemingly effortless knack of surprising the listener with music that delivers excitement and satisfaction throughout the entire recording, making for a very impressive debut.

Physical CD only for this release through his website here.

Mike Gates