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.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Multi Page

Despite his easygoing presence, guitarist Saul Rubin reveals a contrarian side when contemplating the commercial zeitgeist. Having gone largely unrecognized for much of his performing life, this master of the musical conversation has, at 54, little time for interplay, musical or otherwise, with the single-minded strivers who populate today’s fragmenting marketplace.

It’s no small quirk of fate, then, that Rubin’s marketplace profile is receiving the kind of boost money can’t buy, courtesy of a new relationship with saxophonist Sonny Rollins. A venerated cultural figure, Rollins now counts Rubin among the members of his band. But Rubin, true to his skeptical nature, views even that development with some ambivalence.

“It’s a paradox,” he said in a recent interview. “All of a sudden I’m Saul Rubin, the guy who plays with Sonny Rollins. It gets me a lot of stuff, but I can’t really pursue my own career as an artist right now.”

Since 2009, Rubin’s career has revolved around Zeb’s, a sparsely appointed performance space and recording studio that he founded. He runs it above a plumbing supply store in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. On many a Wednesday night, when singers take center stage, he can be found in the accompanist’s chair, a slightly rumpled figure weaving lines between the musical spaces left by the evening’s headliner.

On Tuesdays or Thursdays, meanwhile, he can be found at Fat Cat, a sprawling recreation hall in a West Village basement, where for six years he has led his combo, the Zebtet, in weekly sets. Performing before a clutch of dedicated listeners amid a pool-and-Ping-Pong-playing crowd, he draws on originals with complex social themes, using titles — “Darkness,” “Winds,” “Universe” and the like — whose simplicity implies a desire to find the essence of the matter at hand.

<

pagebreak>

That desire, in fact, is reflected throughout Rubin’s musical life. While the style of a song or the setting of its performance may vary, the presentation is executed with nary a gratuitous note — a testament to the integrity that is quietly gaining him adherents, including Rollins, who recruited him this past August and has played nine concerts with him, in the United States and Europe.

“He is a consummate musician, a person who is aware of the feelings of others and a person who is gentle in that sense,” Rollins said. “He is everything I could ask for in a band mate.”

Turned on to Rubin by saxophonist Paul Jeffrey, his onetime teacher at Hartford, Conn.’s Hartt School and a former sideman of Thelonious Monk, Rollins, who received the Kennedy Center Honors in 2011, said he is looking forward to continuing to work with the guitarist in the coming year.

For Rubin, that kind of acceptance is not easily assimilated. He acknowledges that he can be reticent to a fault, a tendency dating to his roots in the Midwood section of Brooklyn and in Great Neck, N.Y., where, as a kid with artistic ambition, he received little encouragement from his father, who assumed the role of skeptical Jewish parent. Later, as a young father himself, Rubin’s desire to lead the jazz life ran up against the need to make money, leading to a decade-long detour into graphic animation.

The detour had its rewards: a steady income; an outlet for his talent in visual art, which he has used at Zeb’s to create guitar-shaped bamboo mobiles hanging from the ceiling, and a chance to develop his technological skills, which he employs in manning the soundboard at Zeb’s. At the same time, the demands of the animation job limited his playing to the occasional wedding and off-hour jam.

But that, he said, all changed after 9/11, when a combination of economic circumstance and psychological need drove him to re-evaluate his life’s direction. Suddenly, animation work was less abundant, and he shifted his focus full time to jazz.

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.