I first learned of the extraordinary pianist, accordionist and composer Ben Rosenblum from the late Frank Kimbrough who was one of his mentors at Juilliard. I was lucky enough to work with Ben on Kites & Strings, the acclaimed 2020 debut of his band Nebula Project. The group’s wide-ranging follow-up, A Thousand Pebbles, is out February 10, 2023 via One Trick Dog. Album Release Concert March 2, 2023 at Smalls, NYC
Built upon Rosenblum’s working trio with bassist Marty Jaffe and drummer Ben Zweig, Nebula Project features a brilliant constellation of improvisers who are also esteemed band leaders, composers and educators: trumpeter Wayne Tucker, guitarist Rafael Rosa, and reed expert Jasper Dutz, along with new addition Xavier Del Castillo on tenor sax and flute.
In the expansive universe of the Ben Rosenblum Nebula Project, musical traditions collide and commingle, ignite and recombine, coalescing into strikingly expressive new forms. A pianist, accordionist and composer whose music flows from his boundless curiosity and gift for forging passionate creative alliances, Rosenblum has carved out a singular niche on the New York scene exploring a far-flung array of rhythms and sounds in compositions guided by deeply etched narratives. A Thousand Pebbles is his fourth album as a leader, and it represents a major creative leap from the Nebula Project’s highly regarded 2020 debut Kites & Strings.
The band is uniquely suited for the cohesive musical storytelling the Nebula Project is all about. “I’m lucky in that regard,” says Rosenblum. “I’ve known these guys for a while, and I’ve come to understand their musical personalities. I’m writing for these musicians specifically, in a way that makes it really hard to sub when they’re not available. They’re personally invested in this project.”
Rosenblum’s music reflects his disparate musical passions, which encompass Bulgarian vocal polyphony, Northern Brazilian party music, Afro-Caribbean rhythms, and traditional Irish music. He introduces his wide-open aesthetic on the opening track “Catamaran,” a sprightly, inviting expedition that traverses open seas before arriving unexpectedly at a Celtic redoubt. The accordion-driven slip jig section was inspired by a lesson with Irish accordion virtuoso Jimmy Keane, and Rosenblum’s regular attendance at Monday night Irish song sessions at the Landmark Tavern in Hell’s Kitchen.
He wrote the first part of the piece in Croatia while accompanying the innovative vocalist Astrid Kuljanic, and the tune evokes the hopes and dreams of people traveling to a new home. Says Rosenblum, “The horns are the inner monologues of three different people, and I’m sort of panning the metaphorical camera from one to the other. Each horn player has a really different approach to the same harmony.”
A cinematic sensibility also suffuses “Bulgares,” a swirling theme inspired by Rosenblum’s love of the all-woman Bulgarian vocal ensemble Les Voix Mysteres des Bulgares. The piece hurtles along in 11 with Dutz’s clarinet bringing out the reedy quality of the accordion as he and Rosenblum play the theme in unison. A startlingly beautiful arco bass statement opens “The Bell from Europe,” an elegiac theme inspired by a Weldon Kees poem and Croatian church bells, and something of a meditation on the search for meaning after the slaughter of two world wars. Rosenblum is just as deft at up-close-and-personal themes, as with “Lilian,” a film noir study centering on an alluring femme fatale portrayed with forlorn elegance by Dutz’s bass clarinet.
The album’s centerpiece is the titular four-part suite, an extended sojourn that draws partly on Rosenblum’s memories of attending synagogue during high holidays. The stately, hymn-like, trumpet-driven introduction quickly gives way to the briskly swinging “Road to Recollection,” a vivifying piece of prog-rock hard bop. With a series of jump cut transitions, the suite evokes the Wayne Shorter multiverse with “The Gathering” and ends back in the pews with “Living Streams,” a sumptuous setting based on the chord changes for Psalm 23. “I think of the suite more as a reflection on childhood than a spiritual journey,” says Rosenblum, “trying to understand these huge forces and concepts, trying to find your own meaning in all these different traditions.”
Rosenblum closes the album with two disparate tracks. He reimagines the oft-overlooked bossa nova standard “Song of the Sabia” by transplanting Jobim’s sublime, saudade-soaked melody to the dry hinterlands of northern Brazil, setting the song to a propulsive forró groove. “Implicit Attitude,” a contrafact of the Miles Davis/Gil Evans tune “Boplicity,” Is the album’s most straight-ahead piece, infused with an unadulterated shot of swing, a Lennie Tristano vibe for trumpet and sax and guitar.
In many ways Rosenblum’s global aesthetic reflects his cosmopolitan upbringing in New York City. A Gotham native born on March 29, 1993, he earned a BA from Columbia University while studying piano at Juilliard with Bruce Barth and Frank Kimbrough. By high school he’d met his first mentor, esteemed Israeli-born pianist Roy Assaf, who connected him with drum maestro Winard Harper. Harper was just starting a new jam session in Jersey City to bring jazz back into his home community. With a small budget, “Winard got young musicians like me for the house band, and that ended up being an incredible experience.” Assaf also introduced Rosenblum to veteran vocalist Deborah Davis, who took him under her wing and taught him the art of vocal accompaniment. Davis recommended Rosenblum to bassist Curtis Lundy, who became another invaluable mentor, providing “tough love in a way that was great for my development,” he says.
Showcasing a dazzling cross section of New York talent, Nebula Project is an ideal forum for the knowledge Rosenblum has gleaned over the years. With his telegraphic lyricism, Wayne Tucker delivers crackling work throughout. The trumpeter has made a name for himself as a bandleader, songwriter, and accompanist for vocal stars such as Kurt Elling, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Cyrille Aimee. Along with Jasper Dutz (who recently took over the lead alto chair in Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro-Latin Jazz Alliance), Xavier Del Castillo and Puerto Rican guitarist Rafael Rosa, the group boasts a frontline bristling with rising stars.
photo by Monique Witt
The band is built upon Rosenblum’s working trio with Marty Jaffe and Ben Zweig, who Rosenblum has toured with for several years. “They’re willing to be as adventurous musically as I want to be,” he says. “The two of them have such a deep knowledge of traditional jazz and hard bop and how to swing, but they’re willing to spend the hours to learn about, say, Brazilian music in a deep way.”
Best known as a highly adaptable pianist, Rosenblum started to focus on the accordion about seven years ago. He studied with Brazilian master Vitor Gonçalves, and the dearth of jazz accordion players meant that “I started getting opportunities I wasn’t ready for at the time,” he says, like touring around Europe with New York-based Croatian jazz vocalist Astrid Kuljanic. “The accordion introduced me to all kinds of international styles – South American, klezmer, Romanian, and Irish music.”
His engagement with the accordion accelerated during the pandemic, which wiped away indoor gigs for many months. “And all of a sudden all these other gigs started happening,” he says. “I was practicing the accordion a lot during the pandemic, and found myself in a lot more accordion settings, playing forró with Nêgah Santos and Punjabi folk songs and ghazals with Kiran Ahluwalia. I just played a bunch of traditional Turkish music with oud and kamancheh. It’s opened up so many worlds in such a crazy way.”
The Nebula Project captures the inspiration that Rosenblum has gleaned from some of those worlds as A Thousand Pebbles exemplifies jazz’s singular power to absorb far-flung influences. It’s a joyous ride.
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