A Prog-Jazz Suite About Architecture? Jacob Garchik Does It All

Dec 13, 2015
Originally published on December 14, 2015 2:15 pm

A few years ago, composer and trombonist Jacob Garchik started noticing that a lot of older apartment buildings near his house in Brooklyn have medieval architectural details. "This building is a really good example," he says, pointing out a six-story brick box in the Flatbush neighborhood. Between the first and second floors, there's a row of plaques with images in relief. They're knights and shields and heralds.

The medieval theme was a real estate marketing gimmick in the 1920s used to lure Jewish immigrants who dreamed of upward mobility — like Garchik's ancestors — from the Lower East Side of Manhattan. "The developer and the architect were selling this fantasy of these grand palaces," Garchik says.

That fantasy worked, drawing in crowds. To make room for more apartment buildings, developers tore down single-family Victorian homes. But a few run-down holdouts are still here, surrounded by faux-Tudor half-timbers, clad in vinyl siding.

The history of their former neighbors' demise inspired the storyline that runs through Garchik's new album, Ye Olde. It's set up by a poem in the liner notes:

Our heroes met and formed a merry band
in order to defeat the evil plan
of architect Mortise Mansard the IVth
whose castles dotted the landscape South to North.
Flatbush would be a town of brick no more
But a sea of yellow vinyl from roof to floor
...

Garchik thought a story set in medieval Brooklyn fit an album inspired by progressive rock's rococo digressions. But the story is mainly there so nobody gets the wrong idea about the music, or the guy who wrote it.

"I just feel like if you didn't know there was a story, you might think it was a little pompous," Garchik says. "I decided that I don't want to take myself too seriously ever again."

Garchik grew up loving classic rock — The Who, The Beatles, the Stones. but he also loves artists classic-rock radio ignores, like King Crimson and Captain Beefheart. He says on an album they inspired, there was only one role for him: "I am the singer, being the trombone player."

Mary Halvorson is one of three guitarists on the album, and she thinks it takes after the music it's inspired by: "They feel like classics that you probably grew up listening to. There's a real nostalgia to how they feel. And they're all brilliant pieces of music."

Recurring themes connect the songs into a through-composed suite for trombone and three guitars. Garchik hadn't really written for guitar before.

"I actually thought he did a really great job of arranging for guitar," Halvorson says. "I mean, there were a couple of parts he checked with me — he'd send me a little except and say, is this playable? And I'd say yes or no."

Garchik hadn't written much for strings, either, when he started working with Kronos Quartet founder and violinist David Harrington. "He's one of my favorite musicians on the planet," Harrington says.

Harrington's kids went to high school with Garchik in San Francisco. Nearly 20 years later, the violinist was in Brooklyn's Prospect Park for a Kronos show when he ran into Garchik, who was arranging for the opening act, a Balkan brass band. A few months later he was arranging for Kronos. In the eight years since, he's done dozens of pieces for the quartet — Vietnamese opera numbers, The Who's "Baba O'Riley."

"He did Henryk Górecki's Five Kurpian Songs," Harrington says. "I'll never forget the day Henryk died, we played Jacob's arrangement of one of Henryk's songs in Poland."

Garchik says he wanted a musical career that would let him hop between genres — and he's not sure he could've had it before the Internet knocked down the walls between them. Making a living is harder now, he says, but making an album like Ye Olde is a lot easier.

"I can release a record tomorrow that's five minutes long, or I could release one that's five hours long," Garchik says. "You could make a record that's 17 flutes. You just do it in your home studio with one microphone. There's nothing that's stopping you."

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Composer and trombonist Jacob Garchik has covered a lot of musical territory, from jazz to Balkan brass bands to arranging for Kronos Quartet. And his latest album goes even further. It's called "Ye Olde" and was inspired by progressive rock and pseudo-medieval architecture. Rick Karr explains.

RICK KARR, BYLINE: A few years ago, Jacob Garchik started noticing that a lot of the older apartment buildings near his house in Brooklyn have medieval architectural details.

JACOB GARCHIK: This building is a really good example.

KARR: It's a six-story brick box in the Flatbush neighborhood. Between the first and second floors, there's a row of plaques with images in relief.

GARCHIK: Knights and shields and heralds.

KARR: The medieval theme was a real estate marketing gimmick in the 1920s to lure Jewish immigrants from the Lower East Side of Manhattan, like Garchik's ancestors, who dreamed of upward mobility.

GARCHIK: The developer and architect were selling this fantasy of these grand palaces.

KARR: It worked. To make room for more apartment buildings, developers tore down single-family Victorian homes. But a few rundown holdouts are still here, surrounded by faux-Tudor half-timbers, clad in vinyl siding. The history of their former neighbor's demise inspired the story line that runs through Garchik's new album, "Ye Olde." It's set up by a poem in the liner notes.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Reading) Our heroes met and formed a merry band in order to defeat the evil plan of architect Mortise Mansard the IV, whose castles dotted the landscape south to north. Flatbush would be a town of brick no more but a sea of yellow vinyl from roof to floor.

(SOUNDBITE OF JACOB GARCHIK SONG, "YE OLDE OF FLATBUSH")

KARR: Garchik thought a story set in Medieval Brooklyn fit an album inspired by progressive rock's rococo digressions. But the story's mainly there so nobody gets the wrong idea about the music or the guy who wrote it.

GARCHIK: I decided that I don't want to take myself too seriously ever again because I just feel like if you didn't know that there was a story, you might think it was a little pompous.

(SOUNDBITE OF JACOB GARCHIK SONG, "THE THRONE ROOM OF QUEEN ANNE")

KARR: Garchik grew up loving classic rock, The Who, Beatles and Stones. He also loves artists classical rock radio ignores - King Crimson and Captain Beefheart. He says on an album they inspired, there was only one role for him.

GARCHIK: I am the singer being the trombone player.

(SOUNDBITE OF JACOB GARCHIK SONG, "POST-MODERN REVIVAL")

MARY HALVORSON: They feel like classics that you probably grew up listening to.

KARR: Mary Halvorson is one of the guitarists on the album.

HALVORSON: There's a real nostalgia to how they feel. And they're all brilliant pieces of music.

(SOUNDBITE OF JACOB GARCHIK SONG, "THE LADY OF DUCK ISLAND")

KARR: Recurring themes connect the songs into a through-composed suite for trombone and three guitars. Garchik hadn't really written for guitar before.

HALVORSON: I actually thought he did a really great job of arranging for guitar. I mean, there were a couple parts he checked with me. He'd send me a little excerpt and say, is this playable? I'd say yes or no.

(SOUNDBITE OF JACOB GARCHIK SONG, "THE LADY OF DUCK ISLAND")

KARR: Garchik hadn't written much for strings, either, when he started working with Kronos Quartet founder and violinist David Harrington.

DAVID HARRINGTON: He's one of my favorite musicians on the planet.

KARR: Harrington's kids went to high school with Garchik in San Francisco. Nearly 20 years later, the violinist was in Brooklyn's Prospect Park for a Kronos show when he ran into Garchik, who was arranging for the opening act, a Balkan brass band. A few months later, he was arranging for Kronos. In the eight years since, he's done dozens of pieces for the quartet, Vietnamese opera songs, The Who's "Baba O'Riley."

HARRINGTON: He did Henryk Gorecki's "Five Kurpian Songs." And I'll never forget the day Henryk died; we played Jacob's arrangement of one of Henryk's songs in Poland.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

KARR: Garchik says he wanted a musical career that let him hop between genres. And he's not sure he could've had it before the Internet knocked down the walls between them. Making a living is harder now, he says, but making an album like "Ye Olde" is a lot easier.

GARCHIK: I can release a record tomorrow that's five minutes long. Or I could release one that's five hours long. You just do it in your home studio with one microphone and there's nothing stopping you.

KARR: In addition to his prog rock suite, "Ye Olde," Jacob Garchik has another new album out.

(SOUNDBITE OF JACOB GARCHIK SONG, "THE OPOSSUM KING OF GREENWOOD FOREST")

KARR: Of brass band music from Sinaloa, Mexico. For NPR News, I'm Rick Karr in Brooklyn. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.