by Ian Mann
January 15, 2021
That Nebula Project functions so successfully as a unit is a tribute both to the individual musicians and to Rosenblum’s composing and arranging skills. A highly impressive and exciting first outing.
Ben Rosenblum Nebula Project
“Kites and Strings”
(One Trick Dog Records)
Ben Rosenblum, piano, accordion, Wayne Tucker – trumpet, Jasper Dutz – tenor sax, bass clarinet,
Rafael Rosa – guitar, Marty Jaffe – bass, Ben Zweig – drums, percussion
Jake Chapman – vibraphone, Sam Chess – trombone, Jeremy Corren – piano
New York born and based Ben Rosenblum is a pianist, accordionist, composer, arranger and bandleader.
Born in 1993 Rosenblum studied piano at the Juilliard School of Music but also earned a BA in philosophy at Columbia University. He was drawn towards a musical career via a number of influential mentors, among them pianist Roy Assaf, drummer Winnard Harper, vocalist Deborah Davis and bassist Curtis Lundy. He also undertook further piano studies with Bruce Barth and the recently deceased Frank Kimbrough.
Rosenblum made his leadership début in 2017 with “Instead”, a well received trio album that featured Lundy on bass and Billy Hart at the drums. He followed this with “River City (2018), which featured a younger trio and teamed Rosenblum with his contemporaries Kanoa Mendenhall (bass) and Ben Zweig (drums). Both albums appear on the independent One Trick Dog imprint.
Rosenblum has forged a national reputation in the US through a process of regular touring with his trio, featuring Zweig and bassist Marty Jaffe, but like so many other musicians he has currently been forced off the road by the Covid pandemic. Nevertheless he has remained highly active during lockdown, regularly performing livestream concerts and also writing new material.
Rosenblum is a prolific composer whose musical interests cover a wide range of stylistic bases, among them jazz, rock, klezmer, tango, folk and classical. He enjoys the prospect of musical mergers and juxtapositions commenting; “I love seeing the way people’s different styles play off each other and combine into something new and unique”.
His new sextet, the Nebula Project, represents a deliberate attempt to broaden his musical horizons. “Kites and Strings”, first released in October 2020, features a programme comprised of a diverse set of Rosenblum originals alongside a traditional Bulgarian folk song, compositions by Brahms and Leonard Bernstein and a song by veteran rocker Neil Young.
The album is also notable for placing an emphasis on Rosenblum’s accordion playing. He started to study the instrument seriously around five years ago under the tutelage of Vitor Goncalves and has since played accordion with the Croatian born, New York based vocalist Astrid Kuljanic, both at her regular club sessions in New York and on a tour of Europe. He also played the instrument in the pit band for “Fiddler On the Roof”. The accordion helped to introduce Rosenblum to a variety of world music styles and he has also begun to compose for the instrument, as can be heard on “Kites and Strings”.
The album commences with “Cedar Place”, Rosenblum’s dedication to one of his jazz piano heroes, the late, great Cedar Walton. Introduced by Jaffe’s powerful double bass the piece features the composer doubling on piano and accordion and takes inspiration from “Bolivia”, one of Walton’s most celebrated compositions. Driven by Jaffe’s propulsive bass lines it’s a bright, up-tempo piece that features bright, punchy ensemble playing from the sextet with solos coming from Rosenblum on accordion and the excellent Tucker on fluent trumpet. Subsequently the versatile Dutz delivers a distinctive solo on tenor.
The title track revolves around a 7/4 pulse and introduces world music elements inspired by Venezuelan merengue and Bulgarian hora. The core sextet is augmented by guest vibraphonist Jake Chapman, who takes the first solo in addition to forming an essential part of the overall ensemble. The combination of accordion and vibes is reminiscent of a less consciously avant garde Claudia Quintet, with Rosenblum having mentioned that group’s Gary Versace as a source of accordion inspiration. The piece also features another lucid solo from Tucker. The trumpeter is a bandleader in his own right and has also recorded for the One Trick Dog label.
Tucker also features strongly on the Rosenblum composed “Halfway to Wonderland”, which starts out sounding like a ballad but subsequently gathers pace, with Rosenblum delivering a sparkling piano solo. Again the leader doubles on accordion and the ensemble textures feature a beguiling mix of sounds, including those of guitar and bass clarinet. Indeed Dutz delivers a marvellously agile and fluent solo on the latter. Jaffe is also featured with a brief, but highly dexterous, double bass solo. Drummer Zweig also shows up strongly as the piece powers towards a crescendo.
Rosenblum’s “Motif from Brahms (op. 98) borrows a dozen bars from old Johannes as the basis for the piece. The leader concentrates on the accordion here, with the lyrical, classically influenced piano solo coming from guest Jeremy Corren. Rosenblum subsequently takes over, really relishing the opportunity to fully stretch out on accordion. The rest of the ensemble provide sympathetic, understated support with Zweig delivering a particularly responsive performance behind the kit.
“Fight or Flight” was originally written for violinist Benjamin Sutin’s jazz/klezmer ensemble Klazz-Ma-Tazz. It features another virtuoso accordion performance, alongside a brassily rousing trumpet solo from Tucker and a heavily distorted guitar wig out from Rosa.
The version of Bernstein’s “Somewhere” was inspired by trumpeter Lee Morgan’s interpretation on his posthumously issued album “Standards”. A lush and highly accomplished ensemble performance finds Rosenblum again specialising on accordion, with Corren supplying the lyrical piano solo. “I knew Jeremy would shine on this” comments Rosenblum, “I love his playing on more melodic pieces. His voice leadings are unlike anyone else, and his supportive accompaniment frees me up to play the melody on accordion”. Rosenblum duly solos on the instrument, followed by the exceptional Tucker on trumpet and Dutz on bass clarinet.
Neil Young wrote the song “Philadelphia” for Jonathan Demme’s film of the same name and it was featured in the closing credits. Rosenblum and the Nebula Project perform it as a jazz ballad, retaining the plaintive, elegiac quality of Young’s original soundtrack performance. The gorgeously rounded tones of guest Sam Chess’ trombone feature as a solo instrument alongside Rosenblum’s lyrical piano and Jaffe’s melodic bass. Chess and guitarist Rosa subsequently take the music into more anthemic territory, with Rosa’ soaring guitar really heading for the stratosphere.
Chess remains on board and Chapman returns to the fold for “Bright Above Us”, with Rosenblum again doubling on accordion and piano. The piece is another feature for the Puerto Rico born Rosa, whose guitar heads skywards again. With an extended line up there’s also a lot of intricate, but often rousing, ensemble playing, plus a feature for the excellent Jaffe on double bass.
“Laughing on the Inside” is described as an “angular blues”, and despite the unusual instrumentation it represents one of the most straightforwardly ‘jazz’ pieces on the album. As something of a ‘blowing vehicle’ it provides the platform for fiery solos from Tucker on trumpet, Rosenblum on accordion, Dutz on bass clarinet and Rosa on typically turbo-charged guitar. There’s also the opportunity for an extended drum work out from the consistently impressive Zweig.
Zweig changes roles on the closing “Izpoved”, acting as conductor on this arrangement of a traditional Bulgarian folk song with Rosenblum’s accordion joined in a kind of ‘choir’ by the horns of Tucker and Dutz, with the accordion taking on an almost ‘church organ’ like quality.
Produced with pinpoint clarity by a production team including Rosenblum, co-producer Dev Avidon and recording engineers Max Ross and Mike Marciano “Kites and Strings” represents a highly impressive piece of work. The leader excels as both an instrumentalist and a composer and his imaginative writing and intelligent arranging ensures that the listener’s attention is maintained throughout. The way in which he successfully integrates the accordion into what is still essentially a jazz ensemble is genuinely impressive.
Rosenblum represents an exciting new discovery for me, as do the members of his band. All make superb individual contributions, and there are some superb solos throughout the album, but they also constitute a highly effective ensemble.
Rosenblum is full of praise for his bandmates. Of the rhythm team of Jaffe and Zweig he comments “I love playing with them so much, they’re willing to be as adventurous musically as I want to be”. This involves putting the hours in to learn about new musical styles in addition to their deep grounding in jazz and hard bop.
Of the horn pairing of Tucker and Dutz he says;
“Wayne has a ton of experience in jazz and also in the R & B and hip hop world and he’s bringing in that musical attitude. His swing is more laid back. I love pairing him with Jasper, who studied with Walter Smith III and is more classically minded. He’s got a really deep relationship with the bass clarinet. I love how different they are, yet how committed they are to the blend”.
That Nebula Project functions so successfully as a unit is a tribute both to the individual musicians and to Rosenblum’s composing and arranging skills. “Kites and Strings” represents a highly impressive and exciting first outing from this ensemble.
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