While bassist and DJ Zack Lober has called New York home for almost a decade, he’s a third-generation native of Montreal, Canada. Lober’s Zaida (Yiddish for “grandfather”), Hyman Herman, immigrated to Montreal as a child with his family and eventually built a career in Montreal as a drummer and bandleader, working with many musicians who would go on to become jazz legends.
As Lober grew up and became a professional musician himself, he became more and more interested in searching for his familiar musical origins through his Zaida’s stories. Out of these old stories comes The Ancestry Project, a multimedia work that takes listeners on a journey through Lober’s family history. Featuring recorded interviews, visual projections, turntables, and a crack band of Lober’s close associates, The Ancestry Project is an ambitious and deeply moving work that synthesizes Lober’s huge range of musical activities.
The Jazz Gallery is very excited to present this project on Thursday, May 15th, 2014. We caught up with Zack by phone to talk about his grandfather and how he made the different pieces of The Ancestry Project fit together.
The Jazz Gallery: Can you start by telling us a bit about your Zaida and his story?
Zack Lober: My Zaida was born in Poland and his family emigrated from Poland, post-World War I. My Zaida was two years old when they left. This was around the time when there were a lot of pogroms happening against the Jewish people. My family was very marginalized in the town where they were living. My great-grandfather had the wherewithal to get out of there before something worse happened, and it inevitably did. His family settled eventually in Montreal.
My great-grandfather was a klezmer violinist, and when he moved to Montreal he kept working as a performing musician. He also got involved with teaching and instrument repairs, sort of all things musical. From there, some of his children also grew up to be musicians. My grandfather started out on drums and he had a brother who played bass whose name was Benny. So my Zaida started playing gigs as a drummer and eventually formed his own band that he led for a couple of decades in Montreal. He mostly played commercial music, but he hired lots of great musicians at the time, like Paul Bley when he was 13 years old, and Maynard Ferguson, and Oscar Peterson.
I only learned about him much later on. Music sort of skipped a generation with my family; my mother and father don’t have a connection with music, and I got into it on my own. Once I already started working professionally, my grandfather would occasionally talk about how he’d done this and that, and I’d be like, “What do you mean you hired Paul Bley!?” He was always very modest and nonchalant about it, and he didn’t really talk about it until I started asking him questions, which eventually led to The Ancestry Project.
TJG: What made you want to document your grandfather’s story with a piece of music?
ZL: I think that it was most important for me to write music from a personal place, and to write music from a place where I felt I really had an ownership of the topic. I also just thought it was an interesting concept; I’d been toying around with it for a long time. We did the first run of it in 2011, but it had been on my mind for a couple of years before that. I had never really figured out how to articulate it.
Part of it was that I just wanted to document his story for my personal records. Then it kind of evolved into something that would make an interesting, thematic piece. I liked the idea of speech being part of the music, and I’m also a big fan of turntablism and people like Kid Koala. I sort of envisioned the speech aspect coming from the turntables and having that being integrated into the music in some way. The project is really every possible expression of my musical and personal interests. I just tried to cram everything into it.
TJG: From a process standpoint, did you interview your grandfather first and then write music around his spoken remembrances, or did you already have some musical ideas and then figure out how to fit his words into them?
ZL: I scheduled two long phone conversations with my grandfather and recorded them. Once I had all of that recorded, I sat down with them and edited them and categorized them topically. Then I sat down to write the music based on the topic and the feeling of the subject matter. The interviews came first, and then I wrote the piece, either literally around the dialogue (sometimes the piece is a transcribed version of his speech), or about how I was going to integrate the speech into other musical gestures.
TJG: In some ways, it sounds like you treat your grandfather’s words like a hip-hop producer would treat a sample. How did your interest in DJing influence the form of the piece?
ZL: I feel some of the musical writing stems from a concept where I would create a little cell of an idea and treat it like I was putting together a beat or a hip-hop-type track. So I would work some ideas out on bass, then refine them into a sample-style idea and have that become the backbone or the foundation of a piece.
There’s this one piece where I have a sample of me playing bass, and at a certain point I transfer from that sample being played on the turntable while I scratch records to picking up my bass and taking over that line, and then move to a new part of the piece.
From the dialogue standpoint, though, most of the time I’m using my grandfather’s words as a narrative that continues through the whole piece rather than cutting it into samples.
TJG: So it’s not like you’re taking the dialogue and chopping it up and treating it like pure sound.
ZL: Well, there is a point where I do something like that. I wanted to explore all of the possibilities of how to integrate the speech into the music, and that’s just one way and I wanted to acknowledge it, but I didn’t want it to be a one-trick pony or anything. I think it’s effective in how it fits into the whole piece, but without it being the only thing I do.
TJG: Some of the piece is highly crafted and pre-scripted—you cut up these interviews and recombined them in a definite way to create a narrative—yet there’s also a lot of traditional jazz improvisation. How did you think about weaving improvised solos into the larger through-composed fabric?
ZL: In my attempts to touch on every possible interest that I have in this production, it was definitely important for me that there be strong moments of improvised and interactive playing. I think the strength of the piece comes from the emotional content of the material. You can have a lot of emotionally sensitive playing without any backstory, obviously, but I thought that why not amplify that and take expressive improvisers and put them in a situation where they do what they already do so excellently, and add this other layer of emotion to it. When we reach sections of improvisation, the audience is already engaged with the feeling of the subject matter, whether it’s a sad section, or a touching, sensitive one, or a happy one.
It’s about going beyond a typical jazz concert and moving toward a more multimedia/cultural performance. I want someone to be able to come off the street who isn’t necessarily a big jazz fan and experience a story and an emotion that they can relate to.
Zack Lober’s Ancestry Project performs at The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, May 15th, 2014, at 9 and 11 p.m. The group features Lober on bass and turntables, David Binney on alto saxophone, Chet Doxas on tenor saxopohone, John Escreet on piano, and Dan Weiss on drums. $15 general admission for the first set ($10 for Members). $10 general admission for the second set ($5 for Members). Purchase tickets here.