If Jigsaw is any indication, Alan Ferber may write the best big-band backgrounds in the business. The trombonist, composer and arranger’s second recording for his (mostly) straight-ahead 18-piece ensemble finds him lining ballads like his own “North Rampart” and guitarist Anthony Wilson’s “She Won’t Look Back” with lush warmth; on the latter, the reed and brass sections take turns trying to outdo each other in sumptuousness. Yet he also pivots easily to kinetic stuff like the Latin-propelled “Impulso” and “Lost in the Hours,” or the twelve-tone-inspired “Jigsaw”—tunes on which the backgrounds are as exciting to listen to as the lead lines.
Backgrounds seem an odd angle of attack, even for big-band music, but it’s through Ferber’s arrangements that he establishes dominance on Jigsaw. He only writes four of the album’s seven tracks, and solos twice. One of his spotlights, on the intro to “Get Sassy,” is in counterpoint to fellow trombonist Jacob Garchik. But it was assuredly Ferber who conceived and shaped that counterpoint, down to the woozy blue-note vernacular that the ensemble picks up and runs with. He similarly masterminds another contrapuntal improv where he doesn’t play at all: trumpeter Clay Jenkins’ “Late Bloomer,” during which the composer and tenor saxophonist Jason Rigby square off. Jenkins wrote it as a soloist’s feature, but it takes Ferber to make it a vehicle for sophisticated call-and-response, both in the ensemble and in the two horns, and garrulous swing—and without sacrificing the solo features.
Indeed, the solos are plentiful and superb here. Jenkins’ “Late Bloomer” run is a highlight, and Wilson and tenorman John Ellis’ turns on “North Rampart” are heart-melting. But even with 17 soloists and assorted teammates, Jigsaw remains Ferber’s show.