Hard Times, Michael Feinberg
Bassist and composer Michael Feinberg presents Hard Times. Feinberg’s eighth album as a leader spotlights a fiercely integrative sound, expressing his layered response to the pandemic that, “offered some challenging opportunities,” according to the New York-based artist, who contends Hard Times “is the culmination of those challenges and opportunities.”
Primed for spontaneous expansion, the collection of largely original compositions reflects an aesthetic containing multitudes. “It’s a pretty diverse album in terms of the music,” he says. “It’s pretty eclectic.” Serving as co-producer alongside Jordi Pujol, Feinberg booked David Amlen to record the music at Sound on Sound Studios in Jersey, and Michael Perez-Cisneros to mix and master the album at Big Orange Sheep.
For Feinberg and his collaborators, Hard Times offers room to wail and room to contemplate and, at its core, room to stretch. As a result of the lockdown, he seized an opportunity to assemble a band of perennially touring artists, including Leo Genovese on keyboards and synths, Billy Buss on trumpet, Godwin Louis on alto, Noah Preminger on tenor, Gabriel Globus-Hoenig on percussion, Orrin Evans on piano and special guest Randy Brecker for one texturally lavish, melodious track.
Once he secured Jeff “Tain” Watts for the studio date, Feinberg began composing much of the music as well as the arrangements with the drummer’s nuanced expression in mind. “He’s someone who I’ve listened to for so long and have such deep respect for,” says Feinberg. “I wanted to bring out elements of his playing I really like.”
Partly for Tain, partly in service of his own expression, Feinberg sought to create a groove-driven album that welcomes dualities and apparent contradictions. “A lot of the interest I have in music comes from disparate worlds combining — the order in the chaos,” he says. “Not that it’s always chaos [laughs]; it can be beautiful, tranquil.” Hard Times presents structured concepts of patterns and groove, allowing Feinberg and his fellow artists to respond with an elasticity and a pervading freedom to take scripted music and spontaneous melodies wherever they mean to go. “It creates the tension and release within the ensemble,” he says, “rather than just with the notes on the page.”
From opening colors on track one’s dedication to master forgers Pei-Shen Qian and Rudy Kurniawan, Hard Times reveals inquiry within the music. In addition to his strength and subtlety on the kit, Tain’s attention to leaving and creating space for idea development persists across the album. Through his arrangement of “Nardis,” Feinberg seeks to honor the pivotal apprenticeship gig with Russell Gunn he landed when he was coming up in Atlanta. Full on the low-end, the groove swells and recedes, arcing the music from one section to the next. “Husafell Stone” hits the listener with a fullness up front. Taking the first solo, Evans allows the composition’s syncopated melody to serve as point of origin before Buss delivers his own swinging response.
Twin McCoy tracks “Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit” and “Three Flowers” pay tribute to a recently departed hero of Feinberg’s, the latter piece featuring a dualism is his bass solo characteristic of the entire record: strength in sensitivity. “These performances are intended as a tribute to him, as well as keeping the flame lit for those who love his music,” he says in his album notes. Written as a feature for Louis and Buss, “Janky in the Middle” spotlights the artists’ interplay, offering each opportunities to play with, alongside and against what the other proffers. The resulting dialogue creates smaller arcs in the music that punctuate the movement of the tune. Feinberg has played together with both artists for the past decade and a half. “We have that comfort to take those chances,” he says, “knowing we can find our way back once we get out there [laughs].”
Flush with lamentation, “Every. Damn. Day. (Burn it down blues)” acknowledges and honors the continued generational trauma inflicted on the Black community as a result of racism, police brutality and gun violence. “Lauren’s Song” features another of Feinberg’s beautiful and tender melodies. In his signature language, Brecker speaks in full voice on “Monkeys Never Cramp.” Concluding on a note of jubilance and healing, “Hard Times” features Feinberg’s resonating walk and swinging melodies. He admits, however, he can only make suggestions; in the moment, sound is fluid. “Everything’s always in flux in the music,” he says. “It can go anywhere at any time, and everyone in the band knows that so we’re ready for it.”