Jewish Sideman Saul Rubin Takes Turn in Spotlight

Sonny Rollins Exposes Guitarist to Huge New Audiences

He’s With The Band: With his job playing for legendary jazz musician Sonny Rollins, Saul Rubin has found the kind of boost that money can’t buy.
Courtesy of Saul Rubin
He’s With The Band: With his job playing for legendary jazz musician Sonny Rollins, Saul Rubin has found the kind of boost that money can’t buy.

By Phillip Lutz

Published January 29, 2013, issue of February 01, 2013.
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The work was sporadic until 2004, when Rubin was hired by trumpeter Roy Hargrove, with whom he had hit it off playing informal duos in the East Village. Hargrove was a marquee name, and Rubin, touring the world with his big band, attracted notice among the cognoscenti as a player and arranger, having contributed charts to the band.

As word of mouth about Rubin spread, he founded Zeb’s. Short for Zebulon Sound & Light, it shares a moniker with his nickname and a lost tribe of Israel. There he started the weekly singers series, attracting established artists like Roseanna Vitro and emerging ones like Nancy Harms. A guitar festival followed, drawing names like Bucky Pizzarelli and Peter Bernstein. The festival promises to become an annual affair.

But Zeb’s does not claim substantial recognition among the wider jazz public, in part by design. Although the logical next step in its evolution would be to transform it into a club, Rubin said he would not take that step. Like Rollins, who gave up playing clubs years ago, Rubin decries the distractions inherent in them and the hierarchical relationship their owners must develop with those who come through the space.

“It would change the vibe,” he said.

As it stands, Zeb’s contrasts markedly with the slick shops in its high-rent district. With amenities largely limited to self-serve wine and water, Rubin likens it to a community center in the Jewish tradition. While hardly a moneymaker — Rubin rents out Zeb’s for performances, parties and recordings at barely a break-even price — its finances have improved since he joined forces with Cobi Narita, a fabled supporter of jazz causes who helps with the rent and uses the space as needed.

That was in August, the same month he started working with Rollins — a confluence of events that suggests Rubin has been on something of a roll. According to Ben Meigners, an Israeli bassist who belongs to the Zebtet, Rubin may be more confident now than at any time in the decade he has known him. For all his confidence, though, Rubin seems unlikely to adopt the individualistic mindset of the striver anytime soon.

“This isn’t about single people, it’s about community,” he said. “That’s what I treasure.”

Phillip Lutz lives and writes in New York. His work has appeared in Newsday, DownBeat and, for 25 years, The New York Times.


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