It began simply enough. “I wanted to make a jazz trombone record,” Jacob Garchik says, explaining his decision to embark on the challenging, entertaining tour de force that is his new album, Assembly (Yestereve).
In February 2021 Garchik convened a quintet—soprano-saxophone extended-techniques master Sam Newsome, pianist Jacob Sacks, bassist Thomas Morgan, and drummer Dan Weiss—in a Brooklyn studio to blow for several hours on a blend of blues, rhythm changes, freebop lines, and standards. For the next three months, Garchik worked with the tapes in his own basement studio, reconfiguring raw materials into palimpsestic compositions. Then, in May, the band reassembled to record those post-production creations. On the album-opening “Collage,” Garchik had overlapped two collectively improvised versions of rhythm changes at different tempos and wrote a new melody to go over it. On “Bricolage,” he looped Morgan’s bass into motifs over which Newsome improvises. On “Idée Fixe,” he froze Sacks’ repeated phrase during a solo on yet another set of rhythm changes and looped it into a scratched-LP effect as a backdrop for several improvised episodes.
Garchik is no stranger to complexity. Assembly directly follows 2020’s Clear Line, for which he conducted a virtuoso 13-piece reeds-and-brass big band, sans rhythm section, through a suite of gnarly yet melodic, primarily through-composed charts. Preceding Clear Line was 2015’s Ye Olde, a prog rock-inflected portrayal of an imagined medieval Brooklyn architectural landscape on which his trombone sings over three electric guitars and flamboyant drums. Ye Olde followed 2012’s The Heavens, where Garchik overdubs eight trombones, two baritone horns, two sousaphones, and tuba in various configurations on songs refracting the “God’s Trombones” component of African American gospel vernaculars.
“I started working on Clear Line in 2017, and it took a few years to put together,” Garchik continues. He enumerates the varied jobs he’s taken over the past decade to cover the mortgage on the two-story house in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights where he lives with his wife, young son, and a mellow dog. During this timespan, Garchik played in “experimental or contemporary classical contexts”—the orchestras of Darcy James Argue, Anna Webber, Miguel Zénon, and John Hollenbeck are a short list—in which “sometimes there’s improvising, sometimes there’s not.” He’d recently played tuba and trombone with the Kronos Quartet at a Stephen Spielberg tribute for which he’d arranged a suite of John Williams scores, the latest of the 100+ works he’s arranged for Kronos since 2006. These include his original score for the experimental film Green Fog, a late-Beethoven treatment of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” a sampled Pete Seeger celebration called “Storyteller,” pieces featuring a Tuvan throat singer and a Malian vocal trio, Vietnamese opera vignettes, Górecki’s Five Kurpian Songs, and homages to Mahalia Jackson (“Precious Lord Take My Hand”), the Who (“Baba O’Riley”), and Jimi Hendrix taking on Bob Dylan (“All Along the Watchtower”).
Garchik used to play trombone and sousaphone with Slavic Soul Party, the popular NYC-based Balkan-meets-American roots band. He continues to play basslines “and absolutely crazy stuff” on sousaphone in Banda de los Muertos, a kick-ass Mexican brass band he co-leads with Oscar Noriega. And he’s subbed for his good friend Brian Drye some 60 times, by his estimate, playing rollicking trombone solos—and glockenspiel—in the hit Broadway musical Hadestown.
“While I was doing all these things, a great desire built up to play jazz trombone,’” Garchik says. “I love it, and people haven’t heard me in the context of bebop changes, swinging. At the same time, I thought: I can’t just make a jazz trombone record, going into the studio like Curtis Fuller with a bunch of head charts, we read them down, and four hours later, ‘Okay, it comes out in six weeks.’ It’s great these sessions exist. But now you’ve got to think about everything else that’s happened. It’s a different world. The studio is a powerful instrument, a tool well within the mainstream of jazz history.
“There’s this bizarre puritanism, even in the so-called experimental world, but definitely in the straight-ahead world, where you want this pristine sound of beautiful acoustic instruments and interaction, and you present complete takes that sound like the Platonic ideal of a gig. You start the tune, solo, interact, then end the tune. Everything has a beginning, middle, and end. I was questioning how that got to be the rule. This is jazz, where there’s freedom. So I found myself questioning whether there’s a way to do 4/4 jazz tunes and chord changes, but do something else with the process—but still make it swing.”
“I can’t just go into the studio like Curtis Fuller with a bunch of head charts, read them down, and four hours later, ‘Okay, it comes out in six weeks.’ It’s a different world.”
Seeing the Big Picture
That issue was addressed by recruiting longstanding partners, comfortable with a 360-degree range of musical expression. Garchik first met Sacks and Weiss in the mid-’90s at Manhattan School of Music, where their classmates included Jason Moran, Eric Lewis, Stefon Harris, Eric Harland, Miles Okazaki, Ohad Talmor, and Jane Monheit. The son of San Francisco Chronicle culture columnist Leah Garchik, he’d been playing trombone since elementary school, had seven years of lessons with a classical trombone teacher, and studied classical and contemporary composition at a California conservatory. During those years, Garchik recalls, “I was obsessed with jazz and learning bits and pieces of solos by J.J. Johnson, Curtis Fuller, Coltrane, Sonny Stitt, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Freddie Hubbard. None of my classmates were interested in any of this stuff.”
At MSM, Garchik—“already a staggering player,” according to Weiss—flourished. “It was like X-Men, when these 17-, 18-, 19-year-olds from around the world gather at the superhero academy and they’re like, ‘Whoa, you have superpowers?’” Garchik says. “At MSM, everybody was deeply nerdy, had record collections, and wanted to talk about Sonny Clark reissues.”
After studying for a semester with Steve Turre (“he’d hear you play for 15 minutes and assess all the problems you’ll need to work on for the next 20 years”) and a year with New York Philharmonic second trombone David Finlayson (“nuts-and-bolts classical technique and mechanics, and we played repertoire, sonatas and concertos and orchestra excerpts”), Garchik came to David Taylor. “His musical aesthetic was close to my interests,” Garchik says. “He loved jazz and could describe his experiences with Duke Ellington, Joe Henderson, and the Mingus Band, but he also played with orchestras under Boulez and was into esoteric improvising, creating weird records like reinterpreting Schubert. He assessed my jazz playing almost like an outsider—not the ‘You played the sharp-11 instead of the sharp-13’-type teacher but more conceptual, like, ‘You lost me in the second chorus because you started to play in a rhythmic way that lost the thread of the end of the first chorus.’ I found his big-picture thinking very helpful.”
Post-graduation, Garchik moved to a cement-floored warehouse in Williamsburg, sharing a space with five punk-oriented non-musicians. Over the next decade, he learned how to execute a DIY aesthetic. He presented his own music, did jazz gigs with MSM contacts, made two out-of-the-box trio albums with Weiss and Sacks, worked in salsa bands and Greek parade bands, took a day job at the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music, and, through his then-girlfriend, met microtone guru Joe Maneri, whose ideas he absorbed.
We cite Garchik’s formative biography to contextualize Brian Drye’s remark: “If you’re a trombone player and hear Jacob, you immediately know he’s virtuosic. It won’t often come across as flashy, but it’s there and it’s constant—it’s virtuosic to serve the art and his ideas. He’s one of the most curious people I know, and he’s gone out of his way to explore all reaches of the instrument, and push it, looking back and looking forward. He’s not afraid to play anything. If we put a band together, he might bring a song from Iran and then something that hearkens back to Jack Teagarden. He knows so much about the trombone’s history and technically how to play it really well.”
Playing the Studio
“I’ve listened all the way through to maybe five percent of the sideman recordings I’ve done,” Dan Weiss said in early June. “But I’ve listened to Assembly twice from front to back. Even if I hadn’t participated, I think it’s a masterpiece. It’s so strong in its conception, in the compositional approach, in the playing. It’s super-creative. So many magical things—the beautiful peaks and valleys, and the balance between purely linear stuff with no overdubs [and] the overdubbed stuff. I don’t think anything like it has been done. It’s not trivial. It’s not a whim thing or a novelty. It’s so steeped in tradition, harmonically, melodically, and rhythmically.”
Guitarist Mary Halvorson, who has recruited Garchik for three of her albums, most recently Amaryllis (Nonesuch), cosigns Weiss’ assessment. “It’s a tricky concept to pull off, and I could see a lot of people failing, but Jacob had a vision and succeeded in piecing together all these elements in a way that makes sense and sounds musical,” she says. “I love the way it weaves in and out of sounding like tunes, the expansive, joyous, melodic quality.”
One striking throughline is how effectively Garchik enfolds Newsome’s extended techniques into ensemble flow, as on “Fantasia,” where the soprano sax, augmented with a plastic hose attachment, produces a bass drone on a set of rhythm changes in A, accompanied by middle Cs from eight separate piano tracks. “I thought turning Sam into a bass function would free up the bass to do something else,” Garchik says. “We met in 2017 through Ethan Iverson’s piece Pepperland for Mark Morris Dance Group, which we’ve done maybe 80 times. Sam plays saxophone like a pristine classical brass player, with so much attention to articulation and intonation and fullness of sound across the registers. I love his solo records where he interprets Monk and Ellington, deconstructing with loops and multiphonics and playing with the forms. I’m interested in all those things.”
The aforementioned leitmotif of “how to have swinging jazz as a core while you’re doing studio stuff” is addressed most directly on “Homage,” a reimagined version of McCoy Tyner’s “Contemplation” scored for four trombones, two soprano saxes, four pianos, four basses, and three drumsets—all overdubbed.
“Studio concoctions in jazz and its related worlds, like Weather Report with Joe Zawinul’s orchestral palette, have worked because it’s funky and you can do layers and edits,” Garchik maintains. “Of course, it also works in ritualistic drumming. It’s trickier with swing because you’re trying to maintain the buoyancy of the rhythm. You can’t splice together, like, two different swinging takes at different tempos. The challenge is to preserve the interplay but still use some techniques the studio grants you. There’s also a sort of sacred element to the single drummer who creates a swing pattern over which you overlay a whole big band or even a studio orchestra. I thought having three drums overdub a slow Elvin Jones tempo—with Elvin’s looseness and a bit of chaos—could be cool. I had Dan play a take with the rhythm section, then a take with sax playing the drones, and so on. I wanted the sound of the triple cymbal hit: not ding, ding but gddading, gddading.”
One of the more surreal tracks on this surreal album is “Pastiche,” a blues in E with a wicked freebop head; a lucid, swinging Garchik solo follows, then we transition back to the head, now sped up a fifth to sound “ridiculous” and “cartoonish.” Another is “Fanfare,” which starts with an elaborate contrapuntal line akin to Anthony Braxton’s 1970s refractions of Eric Dolphy. Suddenly, we hear an impassioned Garchik-Sacks duo rendering of the changes of “In a Sentimental Mood,” on which Garchik channels several tonal personalities, including those of Steve Turre and Lawrence Brown. Almost arbitrarily, it gear-switches back to the wild theme; then, just as arbitrarily, it gives way to romantic improvs on “Sentimental Mood” by Sacks and Garchik. The theme returns briefly, and that’s that.
“I was thinking about framing,” Garchik says. “Like, you could have a Renaissance painting with a modernist frame around it, or something reversed. I was thinking how we’d record these jazz tunes, and then I’d come up with an intro and outro that made you think differently about the interior. On ‘Fanfare,’ I like our performance of ‘In a Sentimental Mood,’ but I didn’t want to make it this precious thing. I wanted to splatter some paint on it.”
Why would anyone consider the duo section a “precious thing”? Garchik answers: “It’s 2022. These chord changes are 90 years old. I often think that this isn’t even my parents’ music.”
This remark aligned with Garchik’s account, earlier in our conversation, of his “jazz snob” phase as “a know-it-all teenager.” “My parents told us we couldn’t go see, like, Gremlins or Raiders of the Lost Ark, or buy comic books or eat candy because they were junk,” he recalls. “My mom wrote for the newspaper. Part of my childhood was to be surrounded by writers and artists—fascinating people. It’s lucky and a cool way to grow up. Although I love Raiders of the Lost Ark and Gremlins, some of that snobbishness stayed with me.
“I didn’t like any of the ‘young lions’ because I thought they were rejecting the principles handed down by the masters. I thought even Wynton sounded artificial; I preferred to listen to Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw, and Miles. The exception was Kenny Garrett, maybe because he was in Miles’ ’80s band. I was fully on board with the transition to fusion in the ’80s. The avant garde was also part of that history. Ornette went into electric instruments and it made perfect sense. I thought the music went in one direction—a linear progression – and you could never go back.”
The Kronos Connection
Garchik was a preteen when Kronos lead violinist David Harrington met him at a small party hosted by his parents. “I found out he was a musician and wanted to be a composer,” Harrington recalls. “I said, ‘Well, have you written a string quartet yet?’” Two decades later, they met at Prospect Park, where Slavic Soul Party was opening for Kronos, which was performing Philip Glass’ music for the classic 1931 version of Dracula. “The show had to be stopped in the middle of the storm scene because of lightning and rain. Afterward, we met and talked about things.
“Jacob’s first work for Kronos were several cantorial pieces. Somehow he has an instinct about string quartet music; he understands the bow and the feel of making music in our configuration. He understands process. At rehearsals, as he observes the work, he changes things on the spot. He’s helped expand the realm of what Kronos can do. For example, I have a violin tuned to two A strings and two B strings—you play everything in fifths, but it sounds in unison. Once I needed to sound like an Iranian bagpipe, and Jacob knew how to do it. I use that violin for ‘Summertime’ and Geeshie Wiley’s ‘Last Kind Words’ and a few other pieces. Trying to notate the music of Tanya Tagaq, the Inuit throat singer, was a real challenge. Jacob came up with something, and we worked back and forth until we arrived at something that basically any quartet in the world could look at and be able to do.”
Garchik’s abiding interest in the plastic and visual arts is apparent when he discusses the gestation of Clear Line. He was ruminating on the pseudonymous graphic novelists Hergé—who “spawned a style of drawing I find interesting” with the iconic, problematic cartoon Tintin—and Moebius, whose “work on Hollywood movies influences so many aspects of what we think spaceships and aliens and outer space and cities in the future look like. I was thinking about how to translate into music this strangely restricted clear line style: solid colors and geometric but realistic renditions of interiors or backgrounds or even technology. So I placed arbitrary restrictions on the pieces, but tried to make it imaginative. No instrumental doubles. No cross-sectional writing. Instead of lush jazz harmony, simple triads, major chords, minor chords, a lot of scales.”
In conceptualizing an armature to underpin his inventions, Garchik said, “I like to think about aesthetics and the history of music.” A deep dive into trombone’s stylistic pathways eventuated in the one-man “Atheist Gospel Trombone Choir” presented on The Heavens. “During the ’90s I heard the Smithsonian record of the trombone shout bands from the United House of Prayer [for All People],” he says. “It blew my mind. Some of the greatest trombone playing I’d ever heard. I’m a studied trombone player, for better or for worse, and it went against everything I knew about trombone history and technique. They’re playing higher than you’re supposed to be able to play, and louder, for longer—and so passionately. But unlike the jazz world, it wasn’t about these individuals. The trombone shout band world is collective; you don’t know who’s playing what. I became interested in gospel music outside that tradition: the a cappella men’s quartets, classic gospel from the ’30s and ’40s. The music’s power fascinated me.”
“My parents told us we couldn’t go see Gremlins or Raiders of the Lost Ark or buy comic books or eat candy because they were junk. … Some of that snobbishness stayed with me.”
Thus inspired, Garchik—always interested in “science and the big picture”—pondered why it is that “the greatest performers can conjure that intangible spirit in anything, not just gospel music.” He thought of John Coltrane’s “intensity and spirit” and wondered: “Can I access such spirituality in my playing? Do only true believers have it? Is it universal to everyone, but you have to access this part of the brain that’s operating on a higher level even if you don’t associate it with belief in God? So I decided to do my own trombone choir, but it’s the atheist trombone choir, and even though I’m not a believer, I’d try to have my version of the Holy Spirit on this record.”
Dialectically, Garchik continues to turn the critical eye upon himself, interrogating how appropriation relates to his musical production. “Basically, since I started listening to jazz, I’ve been captivated by Black American art: jazz, gospel, funk, rock & roll, hip-hop,” he says. “My life basically revolves around my study of that music. That’s what brought me, a white guy from San Francisco, to New York. So I have to come to peace with my role. I’m drawing inspirations from all these people … but I’m sort of an outsider … but I’ve also been immersed in it. I didn’t grow up in church. I went to synagogue, which has its own parallels to gospel, because there’s a choir tradition, a cappella singers doing triadic music, improvising, a virtuoso cantor doing scalar improvisations with microtones. I tried to get to some of that on The Heavens.”
What’s Garchik’s next step? He’s considering whether to release a 2013 recording of a 20-minute piece by the Garchik/Sacks/Weiss trio with violin, viola, and cello on its own or write more music to flesh it out into an album. Also taking shape in his brain is a solo trombone project. “It’s a hornet’s nest,” he says. “Solo trombone has a great tradition too. It will be fun to try to add something to that.”