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The Gig: Jacob Garchik’s ‘Atheist Gospel Trombone Album’

Recording the "unrecordable'

Nate Chinen
Jacob Garchik

Not too long ago, Jacob Garchik had what I’m going to slyly describe as a road-to-Damascus moment-in a record store, naturally, that being one of the few habitats he might claim as a place of worship. Garchik, a trombonist, accordionist and composer of catholic interests, stumbled across Saints’ Paradise, a Smithsonian Folkways compilation featuring the trombone shout bands of the United House of Prayer for All People. He took the album home, heard some high-impact testimony-by groups like the Clouds of Heaven and McCollough Sons of Thunder-and on some level he was changed.

“I became fascinated by gospel music,” Garchik, 35, recently recalled. “There’s this element that spoke to me: It’s kind of a forbidden fruit, or a guilty pleasure. Because, well, for one thing I was raised Jewish. I always had this feeling like whenever you heard the word ‘Jesus,’ if you’re raised Jewish and went to public school, you’re on high alert that people are going to try to indoctrinate you.” Then, of course, there was his atheism. “If I hear music and I really like it, I want to play it,” he said. “I was thinking, how could somebody who doesn’t believe in this stuff play the music-or should they?”

This is the moral quandary that led Garchik to create The Heavens: The Atheist Gospel Trombone Album (Yestereve), his convincingly self-searching new release, organized as a suite in nine parts. As the title suggests, it’s a body of work inherently at odds with itself, though that tension works to the music’s favor. Opening with an annunciatory overture called “Creation’s Creation,” the album unfurls as a sort of secular-humanist love letter to a music steeped in ardent religiosity. An upward-reaching theme that sounds like the essence of jubilation is titled “Optimism,” while a high-stepping rave-up bears the exceptionally wry handle “Glory/Infinity/Nothing.” In the liner notes, Garchik affixes an aphorism to each track, quoting from Mark Twain, Stephen Hawking and Woody Allen; “The Problem of Suffering,” which rides a stout and trudging cadence, bears an inscription from the Book of Judges.

If this sounds like an exercise in cognitive dissonance, you’re apparently not alone: Amazon has the album filed under “Christian & Gospel,” which is a bit like stocking Al Franken’s You’re Good Enough, You’re Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People Like You! in the Self-Help section. Except that in musical terms, Garchik isn’t striking a pose here, or finding traction in parody. His compositions-arranged for as many as eight trombones, along with two sousaphones, two baritone horns and, on a piece called “This Song Is the Center of the Universe,” a saucy-sounding slide trumpet-reflect his genuine feeling for the blaring euphony of gospel trombone choirs and the wider brass tradition to which they belong.

As a jazz trombonist, Garchik is as serious as they come: I once saw him take a solo with the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble that practically tilted the room on its axis, and he does no less impressive work on his own. For most of the last decade, he has also been a member of the indomitable Balkan brass band Slavic Soul Party!; more recently he formed Banda de los Muertos, a group similarly stocked with improvisers but devoted to the heavy-brass customs of northwestern Mexico. It was his experience in Slavic Soul Party!, he said, that led him to reconsider the legacy of marching and military bands as they pertain to jazz-and to his own formative development. “I started playing trombone when I was 10 years old, and one of the first things I did was play in the street in San Francisco with what was basically a brass band,” he said. “A bunch of little kids in front of the music store, improvising funk beats.”

Which brings us to another distinguishing feature of The Heavens: Garchik recorded the album alone in his home studio in Brooklyn, multitracking all the parts. The resulting blend is seamless enough at times as to suggest an overdubbed vocal chorus rather than a standard horn section-and, in fact, Garchik drew specific inspiration from Bobby McFerrin’s early albums, which use vocal overdubs ingeniously. But there’s looseness in the execution too, just enough to conjure the deceptive impression of musicians standing shoulder-to-shoulder in a room. What led Garchik to multitrack the album was partly the challenge and partly the opportunity: Since he plays tuba and baritone as well as trombone, he had the resources close at hand to embody an entire trombone shout band himself, minus the drums.

There was another, more conceptual reason. “I liked the idea, because the record is about atheism, that it would be only me,” Garchik said. Along with the obvious difference between a real United House of Prayer shout band and his solo approximation, there’s the implied distinction between communal uplift and skeptical solitude. Garchik claims not to have thought much about this binary, but he could have fooled me. One of the album’s more spirited tracks is “Dialogue With My Great-Grandfather,” which squares a single cantorial trombone call against a chorus of somber responses. Another is “Digression on the History of Jews and Black Music,” which places his work within a long continuum. “I’m trying very hard not to be just an appropriator,” Garchik explained. “Trying to do it in a respectful way, but with a little bit of irreverence.”

When I asked whether the music changed much in the hands of an actual ensemble, he was quick to say that it did, speaking from recent experience: In July he presented The Heavens for the first time, at ShapeShifter Lab in Brooklyn, with a gang that included trombonists Alan Ferber, Curtis Fowlkes, Curtis Hasselbring, Matt Musselman and Josh Roseman. There must also be a palpable difference, I prodded, between the album as heard through speakers and the blunt, immersive fact of all that brass blaring in a room. “That’s right,” Garchik agreed, adding, a little mystically, “it’s almost unrecordable.”

Originally Published