Even without its clever premise, Jacob Garchik’s latest album would still make for great listening. This is the sort of music that makes you stop in your tracks and mutter, “What is that?” It’s not every day that one hears a trombone choir — let alone one augmented with sousaphone and slide trumpet — playing warm, enveloping tunes that sound like long-lost spirituals.
Garchik, a veteran performer and arranger for groups from the Kronos Quartet to Slavic Soul Party, has struck out on his own for this deeply personal project, a nine-part meditation called “The Heavens: The Atheist Gospel Trombone Album.” All the sounds heard on the disc, from the funny little slide trumpet on down, were recorded by Garchik himself, at his home studio in Brooklyn.
Garchik is a skilled brass player (and it’s dizzying to think of him laying down all those tracks one by one), but it’s the “atheist gospel” concept, of course, that’s his stroke of brilliance. Each piece in the elegant 30-minute suite is paired with a brief quotation — some biblical, others from secular saints like Stephen Hawking and Mark Twain — that raises a fundamental question about human existence and the nature of faith. As Garchik writes in the liner notes, “music and religion are both amazing reflections of human creativity,” and this album is an experiment in gospel music by a non-believing Jew. The happy surprise is that these musical-philosophical vignettes are as stirring and expressive as familiar religious works. Listening to them, you feel as though being all on your own in the universe might not be so bad, after all.