Zachary Lober wasn’t born yet when his grandfather Hy “Blackie” Herman was at the height of his popularity as a bandleader in 1950s Montreal.
Now in his mid-30s, Lober remembers how when he joined his high school’s music program, his grandfather began to share his memories.
He didn’t learn about the Herman family’s longer musical history until after he earned a degree at McGill University studying double bass and worked as a professional jazz bass player in Montreal from 2000 to 2005.
“I wasn’t aware at all of my zaide’s family’s history with music until many years into studying music on my own. I can’t explain why it wasn’t common knowledge, but once I caught wind of it, I asked questions,” Lober says.
He found out that his great-grandfather Israel Herman was a klezmer violinist in Borshov, Poland, with brothers Chaim, who was a drummer, and Sam, a violinist.
The family left for Canada in 1924 after a particularly virulent spate of pogroms terrorized the Jewish community. Israel brought along his wife and two-year-old son Hyman, who grew up to love the drums and work with music greats such as trumpet player Maynard Ferguson, and pianists Oscar Peterson and Paul Bley.
Lober completed his master’s degree in 2007 at the Manhattan School of Music and remains based in New York. His grandfather’s stories began to percolate into his creative life.
“I thought there’s got to be a way to integrate this history into something that I can share that’s personal. I recorded interviews with Zaide and decided to incorporate his words into music that I would write,” Lober says.
The result is The Ancestry Project that played Brooklyn’s IBeam performance space to rave reviews and is coming to Montreal’s Segal Centre for Performing Arts on Feb. 21.
Lober hand-picked his band, including alto saxophonist David Binney, tenor saxophonist Chet Doxas with whom Lober has collaborated on CDs, pianist John Escreet, who has recorded with Lober in the performance collective The Story, and drummer Damion Reid.
Lober keeps the heartbeat going on both electric and double bass, and he mans the turntables and a midi-sequencer that pops out sound bites and cues certain phrases or plays the interview as an often humorous and sometimes touching narrative over the music.
“I have a whole other interest in hip-hop music and always admired scratch DJs. I had the idea to fit the recordings of Zaide’s voice into the band by putting it onto vinyl and having a DJ improvise with his words,” says Lober.
“I had to know how to write for the DJ, so I signed up for three months of lessons at the Rock and Soul School in New York and learned so much about the craft that I could do it myself.”
The hour-long show follows Herman’s immigration, his professional encounters, and admiration of mambo and cha-cha king Tito Puente, combined with snatches of that music and a traditional klezmer doina preserved from Israel Herman’s day.
Most of the music, however, consists of Lober’s original jazz compositions. His fiançée, Alice Zulkarnain, cues projections of wartime Poland and Herman’s life and friends, providing a visual context.
“In New York, the audience reaction was great. Through my research, I even found out that the Herman family has a contingent in Long Island, and Chaim’s grandson, Solly, a retired drummer and bandleader, came to the show with his wife.
“It was very moving for all of us. That sharing with family is going to happen in a big way in Montreal,” says Lober, who will reserve a front row seat for his 86-year-old zaide.
After his Montreal appearance, Lober continues his work as a sideman in New York, Canada and Europe and participates in multiple international jazz festivals, but he’s aiming for a major tour of The Ancestry Project.
To promote its availability, he’s recording the Segal Centre performance on audio and video.
“I think there are a lot of people interested in the show as it relates to their own backgrounds,” says Lober.
“It was important to me that it be performed in a theatre-type environment where the community would feel good about seeing it. I want to tour other Jewish cultural centres around the world.”