Jacob Garchik and his one-man Atheist Gospel Trombone Choir.
Jacob Garchik is back where a lot of his family roots are. Although the brilliant young trombonist-composer was born in San Francisco, he “realized that New York is the musical center of the world” when he was 17. He now lives in Brooklyn, “not that far from where my mom and grandma spent their lives until they moved to California.”
He gladly admits, “It’s a homecoming, that’s a very good way to put it.”
His musical home is a bit more amorphous, as his recent, critically acclaimed album “The Heavens” amply testifies. The album is performed by “the Atheist Gospel Trombone Choir,” which consists of the 36-year-old Garchik and his home recording studio. He wrote and arranged the nine songs on the album and plays all the instruments, from trombone to sousaphone.
He also has played with a long list of major klezmer bands, the Balkan brass group Slavic Soul Party, salsa groups, the Kronos Quartet and the Four Bags, another classical chamber group, and he co-leads a Mexican brass band, Banda de los Muertos.
It would be misleading to say that “The Heavens” reflects all those musical interests, but it cuts a wide swath through jazz, gospel and Jewish religious music.
Then there’s the little matter of the name of the one-man band. In the Atheist Gospel Trombone Choir, what words modify which ideas?
The soft-spoken Garchik laughs when asked that question.
“I really stuck together a bunch of different things,” he replies. “‘Atheist Gospel’ is so ridiculous on its face, so I liked that. I’m genuinely interested in gospel music and I really wanted to play it, but I felt it would be dishonest if I did a gospel record and didn’t mention that I’m not religious. I don’t believe in God but I believe in science. I have a view of the universe that doesn’t include God.”
He adds, “There are piles of religious music, some of the greatest music ever made, but nobody has made atheist music. I guess I wanted to explore that while also exploring my love for religious music.”
Garchik was raised as a Conservative Jew. He went to Hebrew school and Sunday school, learned to read Hebrew, chanted the haftarah at his bar mitzvah “and all that stuff growing up,” he says.
It may not have left him with a belief in God, but he did retain a devouring interest in Jewish history and culture.
“I still enjoy learning about Judaism,” he says. “I’m fascinated by everything — the history, the music, the social aspects of it. And that interest has grown as I’ve gotten older. I recently was reading James Kugel’s book on the historical accuracy of the Bible [“How to Read the Bible], and I was really impressed by how he managed to reconcile his own view of the world as a practicing Jew with what he knows about the paradoxes in the text. I have different beliefs than Kugel, but the paradoxes are very interesting to me.”
Perhaps the most interesting paradox in “The Heavens” is the idea of a ‘choir’ of one. The process of making the recording was a lengthy one, but it was the writing rather than the performance that took the longest.
“I spent six to nine months composing at the computer, conventional scored music,” Garchik explains. “I started making demos because I was just learning how to use the recording equipment at the same time. I had to figure out where to put the microphone, what software to use, how to edit. When I finally got software I was comfortable with, the recording process only took a month and a half. Then I brought it to a mixing engineer and he worked his magic.”
The music on the album is full of quick turns and slow glides. The harmonies are intricate and there is no rhythm section — just Garchik playing two sousaphones on each cut. “The Heavens” is a record that would sound impressive if played by eight or nine horn players. If you didn’t know it was the work of a single musician, you’d still be impressed.
Working without a rhythm section provides its own set of pitfalls.
“You have to be meticulous about your personal sense of rhythm,” Garchik cautions, “especially on a fast piece like ‘Glory/Infinity/Nothing.’ It takes a lot of concentration.”
Garchik estimates that the album is about 75 percent written and the rest improvised. But as he has prepared the material for live performance with a band that includes five more trombonists, a baritone horn, sousaphone and drums, that balance has shifted towards more improvisation.
“On the record each track has a different number of trombones and two sousaphones, but I have had to standardize the instrumentation for live performance,” he explains. “Each piece required some changes. I expanded some of them to leave room for the trombonists to solo, and I freed up the baritone horn part so he’s playing more complex stuff than I recorded.”
The biggest change of all, Garchik admits, has been letting go of the total control he had when he was alone in the studio.
“It’s too tiring to play the lead parts for an entire concert,” he says. “The record is an illusion in that sense. In performance we’ve shuffled the parts around; sometimes I’m playing the lead, but I’ve also given it to other people. So I had to let go. I like hearing what my friends are coming up with, though, so it’s been interesting to hear them play the stuff in their own way. I think it’s really cool what they are doing.”
“The Heavens” will have its Manhattan CD release show on Oct. 16 at 9:30 p.m. at Joe’s Pub (435 Lafayette St.). Garchik will be joined by some of the city’s best trombonists — Josh Roseman, Jason Jackson, Curtis Hasselbring, Curtis Fowlkes — as well as Brian Drye (baritone horn), Joe Daley (sousaphone) and Kenny Wolleson (drums). For information, call (212) 539-8778 or go to www.joespub.com. Garchik will be very busy all fall here, playing with Banda de los Muertos, the Four Bags and the Heavens band all over town. For information, go to his website www.jacobgarchik.com. You can also buy his CDs there.