Wilmington tends to see a lot of visiting talents out of Raleigh-Durham. Our humble capital city has a bustling jazz scene, too, with at least a dozen venues across the Triangle coming alive with horns, keys and drums—and from musicians on the international circuit.
“There are some great jazz musicians in the Raleigh area,” instrumentalist and singer Jim Ferris (sax, flute) says. “I’ve been fortunate to have had the opportunity to play with many of them. If you ever get a chance to hear Brian Miller (sax) when he comes to Wilmington, I highly recommend it. Ariel Pocock (piano, vocals) is another great musician that you will hear a lot about.”
Ferris describes some of the “hippest joints” in town: C. Grace could be right out of 1940’s lower Manhattan and Beyu Café is another he’s frequented in his tenure there with his quartet and trio.
Ferris moved to Wilmington in late 2017, where he’s since formed the latest Jim Ferris Trio with pianist Duke Ladd and drummer Manny Santos. They’ll take over Tails Piano Bar on December 21 for a Christmas jazz showcase.
The youngest of five children, who all played instruments, Ferris chose the sax at age 9 to play in the family band with his dad and four sisters. Ferris played in his first “gigging band” in high school, part of a four-piece horn section playing Chicago tunes. He performed with various outfits over the years and played anything from rock and top 40, to Reggae, but his love for jazz never wavered. “I didn’t attend college for music (I majored in math),” he tells, “and there was not a music department but they had a jazz ensemble, so I played in that.”
Ferris officially formed his first jazz group, the Jim Ferris Quartet, in 1988 in Rochester, NY. He cut his teeth on the jazz scene there for a decade before moving to Raleigh in 1999. Upon his move, though, he didn’t play with a band for nine years.
“I really can’t put my finger on why I took a break,” he muses. “A new city, my family and my job (traveling every week) took priority over my music. I also gave my best sax to my son, who was progressing very well in music. . . . On a side note, my son never played sax again but now plays jazz gigs in Raleigh on piano.”
Several years later, with his family’s encouragement, Ferris decided to buy a new sax and the very next day came a call from his church worship leader. “‘I heard you play sax; would you be interested in playing in the worship band,’” Ferris recites. “Divine intervention! A year later, the worship leader and I were playing sax/piano jazz gigs around Raleigh.”
They later added a drummer, thus one of the first versions of Jim Ferris Trio was founded in 2008. A six-week contract through his job brought him to Wilmington in 2015. By the time Ferris moved to ILM almost two years ago, he’d already begun networking among local musicians and hot spots across ILM, including Burnt Mill Creek’s Wednesday jazz nights (now held Sunday nights).
“That is where I met Angelo Galeotti from the Cape Fear Jazz Society,” he remembers. “In October 2016, Angelo arranged for the Raleigh Trio to perform for the Jazz at the CAM series. That is where I met Manny Santos. We immediately hit it off and talked about playing together when I moved to Wilmington in the distant future.”
“The rest is history,” Santos chimes in. “We have great chemistry together. We get tighter with each gig. We also like each other as friends and appreciate each other’s talents.”
Each musician leads their own band (Santos’ Mangroove and the Duke Ladd Band). They respect what the other brings to the music.
“Manny’s strong rhythmic[ally] and [has a] variety of style, and Jim’s reaching musically in the different genres brings a fusion into [our] sound,” Ladd observes. “Both are strong players and fearless to try things, and in that way are able to pull off things making them work.”
Ladd admits he was at first apprehensive of taking on another band when Ferris approached him several times over the course of a year. But Ferris’ inventive song list and tenacity paid off.
“When we played together the first time, everything seemed to click,” Ladd says, “styles, personalities and the freshness of it all.”
Ferris, Santos and Ladd have been together less than a year now and aren’t planning to cut a studio album just yet. With few official rehearsals, their foundation is in jazz standards (Miles, Monk, Ellington). They take pride in playing complex songs not typically heard from smaller ensembles, like Herbie Hancock and Ronnie Laws and Grover Washington Jr. However, genre-bending sets them apart, as they play tunes by Chick Corea and Spyro Gyra, a la “Spain,” “La Fiesta” and “Morning Dance.”
“Our new tunes tend to move away from standards as we continue to add variety to our setlists,” Ferris says. They also added seasonal tunes for this week’s holiday showcase.
“As jazz musicians typically do, we listen throughout each tune, key-in (pun intended) on what each person is doing, and play off of that,” Ferris continues. “Sometimes we go places we’ve been before, other times we [go with] a hip groove or some ‘call and response.’ It’s those places we’ve never been that are the most fun, and without a word, we look at each other and smile because we just went to a real cool place!”