When he’s not running a loft – where for a couple of years he backed just about every A-list jazz singer on this continent – this cat is the great unsung hero of jazz guitar in New York City. An economy of notes and laser-like purpose define Saul “Zeb” Rubin, sideman to the stars. While there’s no hip bebop voicing that’s off-limits in his book, where he excels with such consistency and understated power is when he goes deep into the dark, grittier side of his own picturesque, shadowy compositions, bristling with suspense and implied menace. In that sense, he’s the missing link between Gene Bertoncini and Bill Frisell. He gets props for writing charts and playing guitar in the Roy Hargrove Big Band, and he’s a regular Sonny Rollins sideman. But his best material ultimately might be his own. His new album, his third, is titled Zeb’s Place, a shout-out to the second-floor Chelsea studio space where he held court and brought in a parade of talented singers to rival the Vanguard. He’s playing the album release show tomorrow night, Nov 6 at 7:30 at Smalls with his “Zebtet” – trumpeter Josh Evans, alto saxophonist Lummie Spann, tenor saxophonist Stacy Dillard, trombonist Frank Lacy, bassist Jonathan Michel and drummer Brandon Lewis.
It’s a mix of both originals and standards with pretty much the same band plus some special guests. Rubin distinguishes himself as a multi-instrumentalist, playing both electric bass, piano and keyboards on several of the numbers here. The bandstand-burner Android opens the album with a bright four-horn frontline, purposefully brief solos all around, Rubin’s own terse, boisterously witty cascades at the center. Those same horns give a lowlit lustre to the slowly swinging, funk-tinged Oh God Show Me the Way, Dillard’s enigmatically strolling lines building a lattice before Rubin himself delivers a pensive three-way conversation, on guitar, bass guitar and string synth.
The first of four standards here, Billy Reid’s The Gypsy is a rapturous duet with Hargrove, Rubin’s judiciously voicing his chords and the spaces around them in tandem with his longtime collaborator’s airy flugelhorn melody. Rubin opens the eerily cinematic diptych Mean Old Joe/Darkness on piano, building to a brooding crescendo spiced with Lewis’ spare cymbals; then the arrangement expands with moody, noir horns, up to a harrowing Evans trumpet cadenza. Dillard shifts to brighter terrain over angst-fueled flurries as the piano carries the theme to its darkly latin-tinged conclusion.
The group does Thomas Chapin’s Who? as a briskly resonant bossa, Dillard and Evans each following a a tenderly melismatic trajectory up to Rubin’s understatedly impactful, fluttering tremolo chords and hammer-on lines. Rubin’s own slinky stroll Cobi Narita gives tenorist Ned Goold a platform for spaciously lowdown prowling matched by the guitarist’s pensive, low-key chordal attack and shadowy solo.
Rubin goes to the well for a couple of standards, making an epically furtive, haunting bossa and then shadowy swing out of All or Nothing at All in a trio setting with Neal Caine on bass and Charles Goold on drums. Rubin’s starkly direct, solo take of Autumn in New York draws a straight line back to Joe Pass and Jim Hall, a rapt kaleidoscope of shifting harmonies. The final number is Rubin’s own coy Halal Falafel, a funny, surreal, hip-hop flavored tribute to New York Middle Eastern street food. There will no doubt be plenty of uneasy urban tableaux, purist sophistication and babaganoush-fueled wit onstage at Smalls tomorrow night.