Rob Garcia trades in his 'trad' roots to become one of New York's great jazz drummers - and composers
6:45 am Oct. 24, 2011
It’s hard to make a living as a jazz musician in New York, but by the time Rob Garcia was in his late 30s, he had found his own quirky niche.
If you were looking for a drummer to perform the music of the fabled Jazz Age cornet hero Bix Beiderbecke, Garcia was your guy. Bandleaders also called him when they needed someone to conjure up the spirits of departed New Orleans master percussionists whose names were as colorful as their beats, like Baby Dodds and Zutty Singleton.
It wasn't just Garcia's authentic playing but his enthusiasm for the history of jazz that made him a go-to guy. He brought along an old fashioned set of tubs with an enormous bass drum to play, with a painting of a moonlit couple necking on the front skin, the kind of wonderfully gaudy illustration that could be found on drum sets in most Depression-era jazz orchestras.
“One time I saw an old movie with Duke Ellington,” Garcia said proudly. “His drummer, Sonny Greer, had the same picture on his bass drum.”
But as well as the gigs paid, and as much as Garcia loved the music, he wasn't happy: For all of his traditionalist cred, he was a modernist inside. He loved Thelonious Monk, Wayne Shorter and Igor Stravinsky as much as he did the music of Hoagy Carmichael.
So, two years ago, though he was married with two kids to help support, Garcia starting turning down gigs requiring him to emulate early Gene Krupa and heeded his countervailing calling.
On Oct. 27, the 42-year-old drummer, who looks a bit like a younger, less exasperated Wallace Shawn, brings his quartet, The Rob Garcia 4, to the Cornelia Street Café to celebrate the release of The Drop and the Ocean, his second release on Brooklyn Jazz Underground.
The Rob Garcia 4 is fast becoming one of the city’s finest modern ensembles, not just because the leader has enlisted three sidemen—saxophonist Noah Preminger, pianist Dan Tepfer and bassist John Hebert—who themselves are paragons on the modern scene.
Garcia is a fine drummer and a gifted composer. He writes songs with unusual time signatures. But Garcia and his band members play them with a casualness that would dazzle the old masters. The beat rarely lands where you would expect, but the groove is always right there.
The drummer also writes melodies that are disarmingly simple and childlike. They linger in your mind like those of Monk, Shorter and the Tin Pan Alley composers whom Garcia also deeply admires.
“Robbie's music contains a lot of really great melodies and that's why I play music,” Preminger said in an interview. “And people want to hear melodies.”
There are plenty of examples on The Drop and the Ocean. The first track, "Will," opens with Preminger blowing an unadorned two-note theme that sounds a bit like Morse code, but it morphs into the tune’s hook and later becomes the springboard for a bracing solo by the saxophonist.
“Humility” begins with a lullaby, swerves into an unruly swing section and returns to the original line after a lovely bass solo by Ebert. The title, Garcia helpfully elaborated in an email, “refers to the experience of being a parent and those moments where one has no idea of what to do … a very humbling experience.”
GARCIA GREW UP IN PELHAM, N.Y., THE SON OF AN ARCHITECT AND PART-time bassist. At an early age, he discovered his father’s collection of jazz 78s and fell in love. He played gigs with his dad in New York and met a lot of the stalwarts of the traditional scene.
“I never set out to become a trad jazz player,” Garcia said. “It was something I just kind of fell into.”
It was through these connections that he landed a steady job with Woody Allen’s New Orleans-inspired combo in 1997. It lasted for eight years.
The band played one set a week on Monday night at the Café Carlyle. Allen showed up at the last minute with his clarinet after the band had set up. They entertained the well-heeled crowd. Then the leader departed without saying much to his sidemen. Garcia didn’t take it personally.
“It’s not like there’s a back stage at the Carlyle where you can hang out,” he said.
But the drummer got to know Allen a little better when the band toured. One time Garcia arrived at a rehearsal and found Allen playing "Round Midnight," arguably Monk's most famous composition and the most-recorded jazz standard composed by a jazz musician in history. The two bonded over their shared passion for Monk's decidedly non-trad work.
In 2000, Garcia became a member of bass saxophonist Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks, a New York-based big band that performs jazz from the 20s and 30s on period instruments.
That was fun too but it was odd to him that most of his bandmates were only interested in music from the distant past. Garcia was more promiscuous. He moonlighted with Latin bands and reggae ensembles. He struck up a close relationship with Joseph Jarman, a founding member of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, whose music was anathema to Benny Goodman–lovers.
Finally, Garcia decided it was time to devote himself full time to music that was as current as it could possibly be: Music he wrote himself. Traditional jazz, he said, “was just taking up a lot of my time, and I wanted to put it some place else.”
His beloved old drum set gets a workout when he lugs them from his Windsor Terrace home to moonlight a gig with Woody Allen, something he still does from time to time. It also comes in handy for his project Particle Accelerator, a duo with Scott Robinson, a rare veteran of both the avant-garde and old-time jazz scenes who plays every reed instrument imaginable from contrabass to sopranino saxophone.
The two musicians appear at Barbès on Dec. 13., and they will here and there be putting traditional jazz pieces through their own quirky looking glass.
“Sometimes we just play them rubato like they are hymns," Garcia said. "It’s another way of using that old drum set, but getting outside of the traditional way of playing traditional jazz.”
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