Blog Written by Sean Ryan for Blacksocks.com
The entrance to one of New York’s hidden musical gems is about as nondescript as they come. Next to a storage garage and underneath a faded red sign that reads “Greenwich Village Plumber’s Supply,” the gated red door to 223 W. 28th Street simply reads “Zeb’s.” I went there a few weeks ago to speak to Zeb himself. After calling him to make sure I wasn’t completely lost, Zeb, or Saul “Zebulon” Rubin, creaked open the door and cordially invited me into a place quite unlike any I’d ever seen.
In a way that only a true visionary can, Saul has converted a nearly 2,000 square foot open loft into an inviting performance space, a state of the art recording studio, and an event venue available for private hire. The stage area in the front of the room boasts a Yamaha grand piano and a vintage jazz drum kit, and the room contains various pieces of abstract painting and graphic design of Saul’s own creation. All in all, Zeb’s unique aesthetic and acoustic elements combine to place it among the best places for live jazz in New York City.
Saul’s loft and all that it represents is the culmination of his long-term vision that began, at least officially, in 1997, when he created his own production company called “Zebulon Light and Sound.” In 2009 he expanded on his company’s mission when he acquired the loft in Chelsea that became Zeb’s. At that point, “Zebulon Light and Sound” went far beyond individual recording projects for clients. As far as a musician is concerned, it is now a utopian ideal – a physical space dedicated to fostering creation and appreciation of music, all for the sake of the music itself.
“I love the community aspect of jazz,” Saul says, “and I wanted to build a place that fosters a sense of community among musicians and other artists. This is a very grass roots kind of place.”
Saul likens Zeb’s to the jazz lofts that dotted Manhattan in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. During their heyday, these lofts were home to all night jam sessions that produced some of the most innovative recording and composition of the time, and for periods of time they served as a permanent residence to a handful of the most influential jazz musicians to ever live.
“Obviously times are different now,” Rubin says, “but this place is similar in that musicians really come here to listen to each other and give each other support.”
A multi-instrumentalist of serious talent, Saul regularly plays guitar and piano at some of New York’s top venues. His approach to music might be called aggressive eclecticism. A lifetime New Yorker and Brooklyn native, Saul has had plenty of exposure to music from all different styles and inspirations, and he takes it all in like a sponge, fostering his own voice that cannot be pinned to any strict tradition or influence.
“You have to be willing to keep your ears open,” Saul says, “and be in tune to the good things in all different styles of playing, and all different sorts of musicians. I love music that really sounds like it comes from the people, and that it’s saying something meaningful – I’m not a fan of complexity for the sake of complexity.”
This belief comes through in abundance in Saul’s guitar playing. When soloing or complementing over a traditional jazz form, his harmonies are subtle and sophisticated, but never unnecessarily obscure. The phrasing, note choices, and inflection of his solo lines deliver depths of soulful expression. No matter how technical his playing gets, its emotive qualities always resonate on an accessible level.
For almost two years, Zeb’s has featured a jazz vocalist series on Wednesday nights beginning at 8:30 pm. Some of the hottest and most in-demand contemporary vocalists in Jazz have graced the stage at Zebs, including, to name a few, Gregory Porter, Marianne Solivan, Giacomo Gates, Marilyn Kleinberg, Lezlie Harrison, Vicki Burns, Tessa Souter, Johnny O’Neal, Bob Dorough, Gabrielle Stravelli, Miles Griffith, Marion Cowings, Roseanna Vitro, and many more. An open jam session follows the vocalists’ sets, which often brings highly talented unknown artists to the stage to display their chops.
“You can pay $100 at Lincoln Center, and of course you’ll see great playing, but it will be lacking something that this place has,” Saul says. “People really come here to listen – it’s not a place where jazz is polite background music to a social gathering. There aren’t too many places like that around anymore, and I’m really glad that we can be a part of keeping that alive in the New York music scene.”
In describing what he loves about music, Saul is apt to use words like“spiritual,” “organic,” and “indigenous.” He believes strongly in music’s ability to bring people together and to allow people to realize the commonalities within the human experience.
“Jazz music can take you to a place where few other things can,” Saul says, “because of the nature of improvisation. You can really feel someone’s emotions and thoughts in their spontaneous choices. When you listen to a great musician play jazz, it’s almost as if the music exists externally, and they’re just using their body and talent as a conduit for what the music wants to say.”
That may be so, but on any given night at “Zeb’s,” you can hear what some of the most talented contemporary jazz artists have to say, without a drink minimum or pushy wait staff. Saul Rubin’s jazz loft is a vestige from a bygone era in New York’s cultural history, and a great asset to musically curious New Yorkers and visitors.