Avram Fefer is a low-key dude off the bandstand, but an impassioned musician once on stage. The reed man’s Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares performance at the Shea Theater on Saturday, November 20 provided a jolt of energy that catapulted us from rural Turners Falls, MA to grittier urban environs.
His trio, featuring Adam Lane on bass and Michael Wimberly on drums, gave a spirited 90-minute concert of Fefer originals. When all was said and done, our standing ovation served as a spontaneous thank you for their emptying of the proverbial tank.
Many of the pieces had a rugged nugget of melody that was explored in the best traditions of John Coltrane and Albert Ayler. There was an intensity to the proceedings that conveyed a seriousness of purpose, as well as a higher calling. Fefer is one of those musicians who returns again and again to certain themes, just as some prayers are recited at every service. Four of the compositions we heard are found on Testament, Fefer’s celebrated 2019 Clean Feed release that garnered best of the year honors from NPR, Rolling Stone, Downbeat, and others.
Fefer brought his alto and tenor saxophones and bass clarinet to the Shea. (He also plays soprano and baritone sax, clarinet and flute.) While playing, he sometimes moved around the stage, walking to the back and sides. At one point he even disappeared into the wings. I found the vanishing notes and the swells in volume quite compelling, adding drama to his testimony. Perhaps the movement was an outgrowth of his ongoing Resonant Sculpture Project, a series of solo musical interactions with the large scale works of legendary sculptor Richard Serra, where he moves around and through the pieces.
Adam Lane was a strong presence throughout the evening, taking full advantage of his solo opportunities. He maintained a well-defined melodic stance, full of crowd-pleasing devices. None of the jazz jokes about too many bass solos applied to this concert. It was good to see Lane, who hadn’t been to these parts since a 2016 appearance with the Darius Jones Trio. He’ll be back to the Pioneer Valley on December 10 with William Hooker’s Trio.
Drummer Michael Wimberly has been teaching at Bennington College for a decade, following in the footsteps of the late percussion master, Milford Graves. He also has extensive credits composing and creating sound design for dance (Urban Bush Women, Alvin Ailey, Philadanco) and theater (National Black Theatre, Classical Theatre of Harlem). His playing was forceful and direct: no brush work, no pitter pattering, just powerful declarative statements that gave the music a ritualistic, non-western flavor. He was super helpful carrying and setting up the drums, which of course endeared him to the concert’s producers.
Fefer has led a wonderfully eclectic career. He is part of Greg Tate’s Burnt Sugar Arkestra and Adam Rudolph’s Organic Orchestra, and has worked with The Last Poets, David Murray, Bobby Few and Butch Morris. On stage and off, Fefer talked about his transformative interactions with Ornette Coleman, his theater experience with Ivo Van Hove and Melvin Van Peebles, his time in Boston as a student at Harvard, Berklee and the New England Conservatory, and his early jazz encounters in western Massachusetts with Steve McCraven, Archie Shepp and Tom McClung. He delivered all of it with an off-handed coolness that contrasted with the ferocity of his playing. In the words of writer/photographer Valerie Wilmer, it is inspiring to be in the presence of musicians who take their work “as serious as your life.”