Avram Fefer alto and tenor saxophones | Marc Ribot guitar | Eric Revis bass | Chad Taylor drums
Avram Fefer’s new Clean Feed release, Testament, is the kind of project that excites and entices even on paper. First there’s Fefer, the saxophonist and composer who has been an important contributor to the adventurous New York scene for the past quarter-century, and whose collaborators have included Bobby Few, Archie Shepp, the Last Poets, Sunny Murray, Tony Allen, Reggie Washington, Roy Campbell and many others.
Joining him are two of his closest and longest-running comrades, who are also among the finest improvising musicians of their generation: Eric Revis, the powerhouse bassist whose experience boasts both the far reaches of the avant-garde and his veteran role as the anchor of the Branford Marsalis Quartet; and drummer Chad Taylor, a co-founder of the Chicago Underground ensembles and the percussive choice for visionaries like Pharoah Sanders, Peter Brötzmann and Marc Ribot.
Marc Ribot—the Downtown guitar stalwart and a coup for everyone from John Zorn to Tom Waits, Robert Plant and Elvis Costello—could properly be called Testament’s X factor. Following two acclaimed trio projects featuring Revis and Taylor, 2011’s Eliyahu and 2009’s Ritual, Fefer was interested to hear how Ribot’s inimitable presence might inform his unit’s telepathic, spiritually-informed chemistry, and how the guitarist might interpret the leader’s explorative yet groove-conscious original music.
As Testament’s eight tracks prove—most of them previously recorded compositions made anew—Ribot simultaneously preserves the intimacy the group developed over many years and urges their rapport toward enthralling new thresholds. Fefer’s gambit worked so well, in fact, that it caused the clearly emotional and poetic improviser to crack up. The results, Fefer explains, were “so sensitive, dynamic and compelling that I couldn’t help laughing out loud as I listened back to some of the tracks during the mixing process.”
Fefer speaks about these musicians with fervor, and traces his relationships with them back to the heady New York avant-jazz scene of the mid-to-late-1990s, when venues like the Knitting Factory, Tonic and the First Street Café fostered a still-unsung era of sonic travelers. At that time, Fefer was still finding his footing in New York, cutting his teeth with small groups and in the city’s most progressive big bands. After earning a liberal arts degree from Harvard and studying music at Berklee and New England Conservatory, he’d spent the first half of the ’90s in Paris, helming a high-profile acid-jazz band signed to a major label.
Ribot, with whom the saxophonist had played and crossed paths but never recorded, touts “a kind of roughness that attracted me right away,” Fefer says, adding “Marc was just really generous with his spirit, and really honed in on the subtleties of the music.” Revis’ robust artistry, Fefer says, is like “the trunk of a tree, basically. Each sound that he plays is like the trunk, and you can hang on the branches and pull in all sorts of directions.”
When the saxophonist and Revis met in 1996, the bassist was a rising star already under the employ of jazz legends. By contrast, Fefer’s early years in New York weren’t easy. The transition from the artistic lifestyle and recognition of Paris to the competitiveness of New York proved difficult, so the bassist’s enthusiasm for Fefer’s music provided the saxophonist with a kind of spiritual salve and a vote of confidence. They held down a two-year residency at the Knitting Factory together, culminating in Fefer’s acclaimed leader debut, “Calling All Spirits.”
Taylor “is really rooted in Africa, in his approach to sound and drumming” says Fefer, whose own aesthetic emerges from a motherland musical diaspora that includes funk, R&B, traditional African styles and more. “He gets these inner-grooves that just really make me dance.” As for the leader, Fefer “has a forceful, astringent sound on alto and a robustly husky voice on tenor,” as the New York Times once commented in a live review, with a particular gift for generating an ensemble dynamic that can feel, as the paper of record put it, “nakedly direct.” His original music on Testament is filled with off-kilter rhythms made natural and flowing, as well as writing informed by profound personal stories. “Wishful Thinking,” for example, was written around the time of his father’s sudden passing. “He was a huge figure in my life,” Fefer says. “He was born in a labor camp in Siberia, yet he went on to be part of a Nobel Prize-winning cancer research team in America.”
“At the time we were working on this album,” he continues, “‘Wishful Thinking’ meant that I hoped he would have been around to hear it.” Other highlights include “Dean St. Hustle,” whose title and sound evoke Sonny Rollins’ The Bridge and Fefer’s move to Brooklyn from his beloved Lower East Side; and “Testament,” an homage to the invaluable hours Fefer spent playing, talking and breaking bread with Ornette Coleman at the maestro’s loft. “This piece reflects the integration of my deep African-American musical influences and my Semitic background, both of which come out of a long history of persecution, survival, renewal, triumph and transcendence,” he explains.
In the end, Fefer’s new project is, in essence, autobiography—a poetic document of a brilliantly open and receptive artist at this particular juncture in his ongoing musical quest. Says Fefer: “Testament is just what it says—a statement about how I feel, who I am, what I want to play and who I want to play it with. It is a musical reflection of my spirit, my values and the life I’ve led thus far.”
All songs by A. Fefer (AKF Music, SACEM, BMI), except Song for Dyani by C. Taylor
Recorded by Eli Crews at Figure 8 Recording, Brooklyn NY December 17th, 2018 | Mixed by Eli Crews at Spillway Sound, West Hurley NY April 2019 | Mastered by Jon Cohrs at Bear Call Mastering, Kingston, NY May 2019
Produced by Avram Fefer | Executive production by Pedro Costa for Trem Azul | Design by Travassos