Jacob Garchik

Jacob Garchik (b. 1976) is a composer, arranger, and trombonist. He has released five albums as a leader including The Heavens: the Atheist Gospel Trombone Album for a one-man trombone choir; Ye Olde, based on an original poem set in an imaginary ancient Brooklyn; and his latest, Clear Line, a big band record for 13 horns (with no rhythm section), inspired by the ligne claire drawing of Belgian cartoonist Hergé.

Garchik is co-founder (with Oscar Noriega) of Banda de los Muertos, which plays traditional Mexican banda music. And Garchik has contributed nearly 100 arrangements and transcriptions for the venerable Kronos Quartet. In 2017 he composed the score for “The Green Fog,” a found-footage remake of Vertigo directed by Guy Maddin.

I spoke to Jacob by Zoom in August 2021.

Where are you right now?

I’m in my basement in a house in Flatbush, Brooklyn. 

Is that where you usually practice?

Yup. We live upstairs so usually I practice down here. Occasionally I practice upstairs if nobody else is around, but usually my wife works from home. My kid is sometimes around, but not during the day. He’s in day care, so I’m down here practicing. 

How old is your son?


Can you practice in the basement any time you want? Do you have to worry about neighbors?

It’s not so well insulated from my own house, but side-to-side they don’t hear much. And in Flatbush there’s a high tolerance for noise. It’s one of the reasons why I was attracted to this neighborhood. I make a lot of noise.

Have you played today?

I warmed up on very slow major scales. It’s an exercise I got from my teacher Dave Taylor at Manhattan School of Music. I’ve been doing it for twenty-five years. Slow major scales starting in the low register, one octave.

This slow, methodical exercise helps you build skills and muscles which can then be used for any type of playing – faster playing, or high register playing, or things that have to do with flexibility.

What music have you been working on?

I play Bach Cello Suites, especially the first three. It’s incredible music, and they get around the horn pretty well. There’s a variety of playing – legato, technical faster playing, and slower melodic stuff, too. There are linear parts and wider intervals. It’s a good mix, a lot of different things that you might encounter in other music.

I recently got a euphonium so sometimes I do Bach an entire day just playing that. Last month I had a tuba gig, so I did some of the Bach on tuba. Otherwise, I just do them on tenor trombone.

What’s the process of learning music for other people’s bands? Like, I know you played on Anna Webber’s recent album Idiom.

Anna Webber’s music can be challenging, but it’s not really the type of thing that I need to practice for hours at home. She’s got some tricky licks, but a lot of it is more conceptual. Or maybe I’ll have to figure out a rhythm, but I usually do that by looking at the music, not playing it on the instrument. 

Do you practice improvising?

I do an exercise where I look at different aspects of music that can be manipulated – harmony, rhythm, texture, register, tone color, tempo, genre. Then I pick a handful of them to restrict my improvisation. It can be absurd, like, I’m gonna practice playing salsa in the low register, in F#, in 5/4. It can also be more practical, like practicing the blues in F at quarter note equals 180. It can also be very abstract, like, I’ll practice circular breathing on one note and vary the tone color in an organic way over five minutes. Little exercises like that get my improvisational muscles working.

What’s an exercise you’d suggest for a trombonist trying to get a good tone.

The slow major scales are good for that, but first there has to be a lot of talking. When I start with students, we talk about it for hours, or weeks or months. Because the exercise has to be done in a way that incorporates posture, physiology, and the mechanics of sound production. There’s nothing to the exercise, but it almost doesn’t matter what it is if you’re doing the mechanical, physiological parts correctly. 

You also develop your tone from hearing good players in person. You train your ear to recognize beautiful sound, and then your body starts copying that sound. When I was growing up, I heard the brass section of the San Francisco Symphony. Then in college, I saw Joe Lovano, Eddie Henderson, Roswell Rudd, Ron Carter, Al Foster, Elvin Jones, Paul Motian.

Drummers influence your approach to tone production on trombone?

Yes. Because you start to hear the difference. I went to music school with a bunch of nineteen-year-old jazz drummers bursting with energy. They have a sound on the instrument. Then I would hear one of these masterful drummers who have been playing seventy years. They sit down at the set and make a sound and it’s amazing.

What would you suggest for someone trying to learn to swing?

Listen to a lot of music and play with people – that’s ninety-nine percent of what you need to do, and then maybe one percent is something that you would do at home with your instrument in the practice room.

Swing is ephemeral and hard to put your finger on. You need to listen and have a familiarity with the history of American music, an openness to the variety of swing, what it means. If you listen to seventy trumpet players, every one of them has a different sense of swing and it’s important to dig into their concept. How does this person interact with the bass and the drums? Are they on top of the beat, on the beat, behind the beat, mixing and matching within a phrase? How is it successful or unsuccessful?

I have an analytic mind, so I put it in technical language. I’ll say, Miles Davis, in bar seventeen, he really held back on the beat until beat four. But some people are like, oh, I love Miles Davis, the way he plays do-do-buh do-bop. It’s the same analysis – one way is more descriptive, and one way is internalizing it without putting it into words.

You should play with a wide variety of people – people who are at your level, above your level, and sometimes beneath your level – and be observant. See what works, what feels good and what doesn’t. Sometimes you play with a rhythm section and it’s like, man, why is this not gelling? Oh, I notice that so-and-so plays really behind the beat or does a funny thing with eighth notes that I don’t like. But oh, they sound good with someone else. It’s this type of analysis.

Playing along with recordings is also good. I was never a fan of Music Minus One or Jamey Aebersold, but I am a fan of playing along with real recordings of the masters. Just turn it up or use headphones and play along in real time.

What’s a recording you play along with?

Coltrane, Live at Birdland. Because of the stereo mix, you can tune out Coltrane.

Also all of the Miles and Coltrane Prestige records – Workin’, Cookin’, Steamin’, Relaxin’. Those are excellent in terms of a variety of tempos, keys and tunes. It’s got Tin Pan Alley, Monk, bebop. That’s an excellent way to learn the basics.

I know you do a lot of arranging, including for the Kronos Quartet. Any suggested exercises for someone looking to get into that craft?

I teach a course at Mannes at the New School in arranging so they can sign up! But otherwise, they should just start doing it. My students do three arrangements of piano music for a small ensemble consisting of whatever instruments happen to be in the class. It’s not precious. I don’t say, first you’ll arrange for a string quartet, then a brass quintet, then a string orchestra. It’s more, you’re gonna arrange this funny little piece for this funny little ensemble which is completely impractical and outside what you’d see in real life.

But the process is important – assessing the strengths and weaknesses of each instrument, considering what you need in your ensemble, how to distribute the parts. What you need to know about an instrument you know nothing about – what’s the lowest note, the highest note; what sounds good, what doesn’t sound good; what’s hard, what’s easy.

I learned all this stuff by getting together with friends in small ensembles and just churning out arrangements – a Brazilian song, Arnold Schoenberg, Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln, James Brown. My listening tastes are eclectic and I’d always be like, I like that, I want to play it. I’ll play it even though it’s gonna be this funny ensemble, different instruments.

Do you still listen to a lot of music?

Yeah, usually during the day, here in the basement. I have a record player I found on the street and fixed up, and I have these excellent headphones.

What have you been listening to?

Tracy Chapman, early Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone’s Stand. That one was fun because I have it on digital also. I went back and forth, A/B tested it, and it sounds good on vinyl. I really enjoy that type of deep listening in headphones, immersion.

My kid right now doesn’t like listening to music that much. I would love to be able to put on a record and hang out with the family, but unfortunately he’s in a phase where he just wants TV or toys and no music, so we don’t do that much listening upstairs.

Do you take your horn on vacation?

I like to have an instrument most of the time, but now that I have a kid it’s more difficult because we have so much other stuff. I just did a vacation where I didn’t take one. I brought the mouthpiece, but I didn’t end up taking it out. It was two weeks without playing, but we’re in a pandemic and I didn’t have any gigs to come rushing home to. I recovered. It wasn’t a big deal.

Does the need to practice ever cause friction in your family life?

Family comes first. I prioritize and we make it work. There are days when I can’t practice at all because there’s some sort of crisis, but thankfully the kid still goes to bed at eight thirty or nine. So then if it’s been a long day, I can come down and practice. He’s in day care on weekdays, thank God, so those are the days that I have time to do substantial practice. 

Jacob, Zev and Eliza at Brighton Beach

 Where’s your phone while you practice?

Right now it’s upstairs, but I have a computer down here.

Does it distract you?

If I’m doing the more repetitive mindless practice it doesn’t require complete attention. In fact, it benefits from internalizing, making the physical aspects more subconscious, automatic, involuntary. So I’ll read articles on the internet, watch TV, watch movies, read a book, do crossword puzzles, anything.

Any final thoughts?

Practicing is beautiful and important, but I find that the biggest things that contribute to my music getting better are conceptual and not things that I do in the practice room.

Sometimes I feel like there’s an imbalance in people’s playing between one and the other. Rather than just, I’ve mastered the technical skills to play that one phrase, it’s important to think about what that next note is and why it’s that note. You ask, why am I doing that? The bigger picture type stuff.

How do you explore the big picture?

It can mean anything – listening to a lot of music, reading books about music, just wandering around thinking about music. Reading biographies of composers, instrumentalists, improvisers, and pop musicians. Thinking about style and evolution and innovations. The view from fifty-miles up type stuff.

Like how did funk develop? How did the rhythm section change what they were doing in this way that created funk? I’m just a trombone player in a practice room, but I ask how I can use these massive shifts in genre, in the history of music, to introduce a shift in what I’m doing. Not just be like, I’m just a guy who plays one note at a time and I’m gonna regurgitate this bebop lick.

Sometimes I hear people and think, well, they spent a lot of time in the practice room, but there really isn’t that type of interrogation – why am I doing this, what’s the history and the genre and what comes after this? I think it’s important to balance instrumental practice and this big picture philosophizing stuff.

I guess it’s telling you didn’t even play on your last album, just conducted.

That’s right.

Let’s do a lightning round to finish. Name one good: 

Children’s song

“Bananaphone” by Rafi

J.J. Johnson Performance

“Misterioso,” from In Person, reissued on Trombone Master

It’s a live performance, and he’s just impeccable – the development of the solo and the restraint and the unbelievable sound and technique. The whole group sounds amazing. Nat Adderley plays almost more amazing than J.J.

Roswell Rudd performance

“Rosmosis” from New York Art Quartet is a great solo.

The album is abstract in a lot of ways, then we get to this tune and Roswell just plays a couple notes on the blues for a minute. It’s an interesting modern way of thinking, this very abstract atonal record and then you’ve got this really bluesy moment and the rhythm section still playing abstract underneath him.

Use of trombone in contemporary classical music

“Partiels” from Les Espaces Acoustiques by Gerard Grisey

Humorous use of trombone

“Trombonik Tanz” by Mickey Katz

The trombonist is Si Zentner, who became a sort of easy-listening star, but was an incredible studio and klezmer player.

“It Might As Well Be Spring,” from Bill Harris with Ben Webster

Harris is a holdover from the swing era playing into the bebop era. His playing makes use of the maximum expressive vocal quality of the trombone in a way that makes me laugh.

An awful arrangement

What do you mean awful?

I thought maybe as an arranger you might know egregious examples of the art form. Or something in poor taste, but well done.

Not at all awful, but “Autumn Leaves,” by Esquivel

It’s complete cheese, it’s lounge music, but as an orchestrator-arranger, I think he’s unbelievable.


JD Allen

Photo by Bart Babinski

JD Allen (b. 1972) is a tenor saxophonist and composer. Raised in Detroit, Allen got his first professional break at twenty when he was hired by the legendary jazz singer Betty Carter. In 2008, Allen formed a trio with bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston which would serve as his primary creative vehicle for the next decade. The group released eight acclaimed albums, toured extensively, and was even the basis of an Atlantic Magazine think piece. In 2019, Allen formed a new trio with two musicians a generation his junior: drummer Nic Cacioppo and bassist Ian Kenselaar. That trio’s latest album is Toys / Die Dreaming (2020); Allen’s latest is Queen City, a solo recital.

Allen lives in Cincinnati; we talked on videophone in August 2021. He was practicing when I called.

What were you working on just now?

“Fifty Second Street Theme,” Thelonious Monk’s tune. I was playing the melody of the bridge in all the keys. I hadn’t done that before, so it was a nice melodic exercise for the day. It’s a cool little line.

Was that the first thing you did on your horn?

No, I was playing “I Mean You” through all the keys, and before that, long tones, scales, and stuff like that. Just going through keys. I try to make sure I play everything through all the keys. 

Do you have a regular warm-up?

I do long tones, tuning, vibrato exercises, “Terraced Dynamics” in the Sigurd Rascher Top Tones book or an exercise in Larry Teal’s Saxophonist’s Workbook.  I’ll spend maybe forty minutes on long tones, or sometimes I’ll only do long tones, just practice that throughout the day.

Where do you usually practice?

In my apartment, just in the living room. I recently moved into a new place. I was a little reluctant to practice here because it seems like there’s a lot of tech people around working from home, but I gave it a wail one day and no one complained. I try to leave at least twelve to seven for practice time. I stop after seven, but those are my work hours. I haven’t heard any complaints yet; no one’s banging on the door. But I’ll practice and then I’ll try to play a tune – just to let people know I can play! Then I go back to sounding bad.

What’s an aspect of your technique that needs improvement?

Everything! But definitely my altissimo. Thanks to my comrade Mark Turner (and a host of others), the saxophone range has been extended. So it’s important to work on that. But it’s a popular thing with tenor saxophonists, so I don’t go outside with the altissimo too much. I’ve been getting into it more for the sake of learning the complete horn. There’s a great mouthpiece exercise for altissimo from Joe Allard called “the Shooshie.”

The beautiful thing about playing music is there’s always something you can improve, but technical practice, for me, is just a means to get better at communicating. When I play, I’m trying to tell a story, and that might not be something particularly technical. I don’t need to show off my technique. The story is first and foremost. 

How do you get better at storytelling?

That’s outside the horn. That means getting in tune with your surroundings, checking out other mediums, being inspired by things that have nothing to do with music. It’s important to look outside music and take what you’ve seen or heard and tell a story like that. Checking out how people speak, the use of space. 

Who’s a good speaker?

I like AOC for her passion and sincerity. Obama is a great speaker – he kinda reminds me of Captain Kirk. Obviously Martin Luther King, with his crescendos and decrescendos, and Malcolm X, Robert Kennedy. Oddly enough, I’m inspired by the way Mike Tyson speaks. He has a fragile sound, but it’s endearing and invites you in. Deep cat: good and bad. But his speaking voice – that’s the blues. 

Suggested exercises for musicians:

A good, full sound

I’m not really sure what you mean by a good full sound. That could be a lot of things, so you should find someone whose sound you like and then listen to them continuously. Not necessarily transcribing. I’m not a big transcriber, because the point is to try to emulate the phrasing and the sound. So you listen a lot, and then you try to copy it on the horn. It’ll happen – your throat will open up. It’s like you can imitate a person speaking. 

That’s a cerebral thing. In terms of the technical part, you cannot escape long tones – soft and loud, trying to play in tune. Some of the old-school cats in Detroit used to say if you want a big sound, stand in a corner and play your low Bb – bahhhh. You try to emulate a fire engine. That just wakes the horn up. You also get the chance to hear your sound because it’s bouncing off the wall.

Evenness of tone throughout the registers

What does that mean when people say play even? Do people listen for that? How does that factor? I’m not sure. When I’m listening to Dexter Gordon play, I’m not concerned if the shit is even. I don’t care if he’s sharp. What I’m listening for is the human element. Are saxophone players like oh, he’s not even, so he’s not good?

In terms of just mastering the instrument, the Larry Teal book is helpful – he has a few exercises for that. And the Sigurd Rascher book Top Tones is great for that, too. But in terms of communicating on the stage? I think if a person spoke extremely flat and even, you might look at them kinda funny. Because there’s emotions that come into speaking, so there should be emotions that come into playing also. The goal of an instrument is to sound like a human voice – that’s what I was taught. So for practicing, be even, that’s great. But playing, I say don’t think about it. Express yourself. 

Playing the blues

I’ve had people ask me that, and I ask them, well, do you listen to the blues? Because first of all, a real blues isn’t twelve bars. And then I tell them, it’s not just notes – I try to play the blues with everything. Another word for it is the cry. You hear that with Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane – all of the titans have the cry. Then I would say, have you been to a black American church and listened to a great choir? And if they say no, I say I’d suggest you do that, then we can talk about the codified twelve-bar blues form of Robert Johnson.

We have to listen. We have to go as close to the source as possible, and study the tradition and make sure the roots are strong so we can then do our own thing. Because if you don’t listen, you can’t play that shit. It’s as simple as that. 

I would also suggest that they check out Barry Harris’s approach to practicing blues changes and do that in every key. After that, it’s up to the person in terms of soloing, because I don’t know what that person’s blues sound like. But if you want to get an education, first and foremost listen to the masters beyond the jazz blues, and then check out Barry Harris. You should be good to go!

Playing a ballad

Listen to the vocalists and the way they approach it. Don’t think of yourself as a saxophone player, think of yourself as a vocalist. That means knowing when to breathe and making decisions about register. If I’m playing a ballad, I’ll try to determine what part of my horn is the feminine aspect and what part is the male aspect. The feminine aspect, that’s usually the upper register, and the masculine is in the lower register. So I’ll try to find a key that works for that, or maybe a key where I can always put my low concert Ab in. Things like that. Pick a good key, and find a recording, listen to it, and try to emulate the vocalist.

Ballads and blues are important to try to master because all of the titans could do that. Especially for the older generation, at least in Detroit, interpreting a ballad really said a lot about if you’re a good player. If somebody comes on stage with me, I’m not gonna call something fast. I’m gonna call something slow, because then you’re gonna hear what’s happening. You’re gonna hear how they think, you’re gonna hear their tone. So there again: you gotta practice the long tones. If you don’t practice long tones, you’re not gonna want to play slow. 


Well, first of all, everything in this country swings – it’s everywhere. It’s in hip-hop, it’s rock ‘n’ roll, it’s jazz. Again, you have to listen. You have to check it out. 

There’s a great video with Dizzy Gillespie talking about swing, and from what I gathered it’s a combination of staccato and legato. So I would say practice a phrase legato one time; the second time, practice it staccato. And then the swing phrase would be ooh-da, air-tongue. The swing aspect is the mix of legato and staccato. 

The younger generation, or a lot of the saxophonists today, they don’t use their tongue. A lot of stuff is even and legato. That’s the George Garzone school. A lot of people I know and love do that. The older bebop generation, they used their tongue. If you think about the reed as if you’re playing a snare drum – accent, accent – that’s where that comes in. I like the bebop style because it’s street. It’s a bit more urban and cagey. 

How do you organize your practice time?

I practice in twenty minute intervals. It’s like exercising – I try to get as many reps as I can in. But I know the goal is not something that I’m gonna accomplish in one day. It took me a long time to get where I’m at. So I gave up on, oh, I’m gonna accomplish this and if I don’t it’s all over. No, it’s just one step at a time. 

How long are your breaks?

It varies. I call that practicing in the cracks. But you want to refresh your mind in practicing, you don’t want to get worn out. So twenty minutes, take a break – five, ten, fifteen minutes – come to another twenty and you can refocus. I started making progress when I started practicing like that. 

Do you exercise much? How does that relate to your playing?

I try to do forty minutes of jump rope every other day or circuit stuff like jumping jacks, push ups and burpees. It helps to build my stamina and breathing. 

There’s a book called The Science of Breath which is really cool. They have all these exercises for breathing and I was doing that for a minute. I found that to be very helpful. 

How selective are you about reeds when you practice – will you practice on a bad reed?

I will practice on a bad reed occasionally, so if I get into that situation, I won’t freak out. But I’m sponsored, so I have the luxury of getting quite a few different reeds to see what works. 

How do you cope with not being able to practice? Do you take your horn on vacation?

Generally I don’t go anywhere without it. I’ve done a bit of travel this year without the horn because I wanted to experience that. It was for a week. I saw it, I did it, and I’m not doing it again!

Because that’s who I am – or, not all of who I am, but the horn has been around since I was nine years old. When I walk down the street without the horn, I’m invisible. I’ve walked past people that I’ve known for years, and if they don’t see me with the horn, they don’t know who the hell I am. I’ve had that happen quite a bit. Even people I’ve played with! Sometimes I just let them walk by and I laugh. 

I’ve gone to places without a horn and been judged in a certain way, but with the horn there’s a definition. It was a pass of sorts to get things, or to have access that I wouldn’t have had without it. So that can be a crutch. But if you’ve been doing something since you were nine years old, and you don’t have it – it’s weird. Maybe that’s something I need to work on: who the hell am I without the horn? Maybe that’s the next lesson for me.

Does the need to practice ever cause friction in your relationships?

It did in my earlier years. Now I know your partner should be someone who understands this is a job. A lot of times people think, oh, it’s not a serious situation, so that time that you’ve allotted for practice isn’t important. It should not be a situation where it’s them or this. It should be: you go to work from this time to this time, and this is my work from this time to this time. If they can’t understand that, then yeah, there’s gonna be friction.

You should put in four or more hours a day if you want to get better. If you’re not putting in four hours, or at least striving for that goal, then it’s not gonna happen. If they don’t understand that, then you gotta make that decision. Getting into this business, you lose a lot of relationships and sometimes even family. But that’s the decision you make, the sacrifice for what you want to do. 

I think you’ve got a few kids who play music?

Yeah, my two youngest boys play. Elijah, he’s sixteen, he plays the trumpet, his brother is thirteen and he plays the saxophone. And I have an older daughter who sings gospel music. 

What do you tell them about practicing?

I tell them do what you want to do. If you decide not to do this, it’s okay. Because I don’t want them to feel like, oh, I’m doing it because my dad does it. 

I tell them if you’re frustrated and don’t feel like practicing, go have fun, go out skateboarding and do your thing. I didn’t have the skateboard, all these activities. I just had music – that was everything. All my friends played music, that’s what I could do. But they can do a lot of stuff, so I say go enjoy life. When you’re ready to sit down, you’ll do it. Because the music calls you, you don’t call the music. This is not a decision. If they feel it, they’ll do it.

Let’s do a quick lightning round. Name one good:

Music method book

The Saxophonist’s Workbook: A Handbook of Basic Fundamentals by Larry Teal

Composition by a twentieth-century Russian composer

“Visions Fugitive” by Prokofiev

Booker Ervin performance

“Better Git It In Your Soul,” Mingus Ah Um

Son House performance

“Death Letter Blues” and “John the Revelator” 

Solo sax performance

Sonny Rollins The Solo Album and anything by Steve Lacy

Television series

Mister In-Between

Any final thoughts on the role of practice in your life?

Well, first of all, practicing means I eat! If I don’t practice, then things are not gonna happen. A lot of people count on me, I count on myself, so practicing means I stay in the game. That’s the practical aspect of it. 

The other side is that playing music is a protest of sorts for me. Anytime I pick up the horn, it’s saying, I’m in this world, but I’m not of this world. Because this is not a popular thing that we do. It takes a lot of heart. The fact that I pick up this horn, or if I see someone else picking up their horn, it’s saying to me that they’ve decided to live a tough life, but it’s a life they choose. It’s a protest, kinda a prick in the eye of capitalism. Like, yeah, I don’t have a million dollars, but I live a million dollar life. That’s my thing.

At the end of our interview, JD said he’d be glad to answer reader questions. If you have any, email me and I’ll pass them along.