As Bold As Brass

It was while listening to archive gospel recordings that composer and multi-instrumentalist Jacob Garchik experienced something of an epiphany ...

"I thought it was some of the greatest music I’d ever heard. I wanted to participate in that music," recalls Garchik.

As a result of listening to the old vinyl - mostly 1960s compilations of previously recorded material dating back several decades, and gleaned from second-hand stores - Garchik penned The Heavens, an instrumental suite for a choir.

But not just any choir ... a trombone choir!

Up and down and East Coast of the United States there are these extraordinary churches called The United House Of Prayer. Over the past couple of decades they’ve developed this tradition of massed trombone choirs and it’s really amazing music - trombone playing of the highest level, it’s very passionate, very exciting. That was my biggest influence. But I was also into a lot of classic gospel, like the acappella gospel quartets from the 1940s.

Despite its roots and gospel sound, The Heavens isn't exactly a traditional gospel album.

"I knew I had to play [gospel music] but I wanted to do it on my own terms and in a way that was honest. In my mind, music and religion are both amazing reflections of human creativity."

When it comes to believing in a higher power, the composer - who subtitled his nine-track collection ‘The Atheist Gospel Trombone Album’ - prefers to describe himself as "sceptical".

​I’m willing to see all the evidence, but that hasn’t been convincing for me so far,” he explains. “In a lot of ways the record is a love letter to religion. I’m very fond of religion - I’m not a religion hater. I was raised Jewish and I still love the Jewish tradition - love the food, love the music. All the religions have something positive to contribute.

Consequently, track notes name-check not only the Bible (Judges, 6:13), but also scientists Stephen Hawking, Albert Einstein and David Deutsch, author Mark Twain, and filmmaker Woody Allen!

"I tried to figure out a way where I could thread the needle and make a statement that was paying tribute to the music that I loved, but still sort of expressed my ideas about religion," he says.

Creating his own heavens Garchik wrote and recorded the instrumental suite at home, playing trombone, sousaphone, baritone horn, slide trumpet, and alto horn on the recordings.

"It’s all me. I overdubbed myself playing four to eight different parts ..."

Having called on various guest musicians to play the work live in the US, he’s now bringing it the UK for the first time. Utilising a band of local brass players, including Richard Foote, Garchik’s excited by the prospect of hearing a Brum interpretation.

"That’s part of the fun. Whenever I play live, there’s a bunch of different personalities, and I never know what is going to happen, who is going to bring what to the table. Everybody does stuff in their own way, especially as there’s a lot of nuisance and stuff that is open to interpretation, so a phrase can be played in a million different ways."

Garchik and Foote are yet to meet, but the New York-based musician is looking forward to working with the leader of The Young Pilgrims - a nine-piece Birmingham-based contemporary brass act whose CV includes performances at Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games celebrations, the Paris Jazz Festival, Lunar Festival and Love Supreme.

"For me he’s part of a tradition, part of a renewed interest in brass bands and street bands that are happening all over the world, very much so in New York City, but also in Europe, South America …” says Garchik of Foote. “It’s really cool. It’s sort of like the New Orleans tradition … these bands are popping up all over."

Jacob Garchik And The Heavens Band

Based in Brooklyn, Garchik’s description of himself as a "jobbing trombone player" is something of an understatement. Twenty-plus years in the business, his CV lists a who's-who of contemporary US jazz acts (Henry Threadgill, Steve Swallow etc), as well as name-checking Elvis Costello, kd Lang, Natalie Merchant, Paul Anka, Rhiannon Giddens and Laurie Anderson, along with The Kronos Quartet, who he's been working with for some time.

"It’s been about 12 years now, I started in 2006. I have performed with them, but most of the time I’m just arranging and composing. I’ve done film scores, all kinds of collaborations ..."

Among those Kronos collaborations is Landfall, featuring Laurie Anderson, which has garnered a 2019 Grammy Awards nomination for Best Chamber Music/ Small Ensemble Performance.

"I’ve been nominated for a whole bunch of albums before, but usually as a jazz trombone player," Garchik says casually, adding he's also involved in two other Grammy 2019 nominated projects. "I'm also on an album by Dafnis Prieto that's up for Best Latin Jazz Album [Dafnis Prieto Big Band, Back To The Sunset], and I’m also on one with John Hollenbeck [All Can Work] which is up for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album."

Despite his various side-lines, which includes traditional Mexican combo Banda de los Muertos and joining Mark Morris Dance Group's Beatles' inspired Pepperland production (which visits Birmingham Hippodrome in March), Garchik reckons few things can complete with the visceral power and instant gratification of hearing a brass band playing at full tilt.

"I think it’s really fun music," he enthuses. "It’s portable, you can play outside, you don’t need electronic amplification - people are really responding to the excitement of having these bands that are acoustic and loud and playing danceable music."

Jazzlines presents the Jacob Garchik Trombone Choir at the CBSO Centre, Birmingham, on Saturday 16 March 2019. For tickets and more information, see: