Joel Rubin doesn’t get to New York very often these days. Being a professor at the University of Virginia is something of a full-time job.
So when the clarinetist-ethnomusicologist doffs mortarboard and travels north with his instrument, as will be the case on Oct. 11, it is well worth making the trip to Manhattan to hear what he’s doing.
“I like to perform in New York as often as I can,” Rubin said in a telephone interview earlier this week. “When I was [based] in Europe it was difficult but for the last seven or eight years I’ve been able to play here every year, year and a half.”
This year carries a lot of significance for Rubin, so it seems like a particularly auspicious time to “let New York hear what I’ve been up to,” as he put it.
“It’s my 30th year since my first klezmer concert, almost to the day,” he noted. “The first one was during Sukkot 1981. I finished my Ph.D. 10 years ago, and I started teaching at UVA five years ago.”
And he’ll be reunited with an old friend on the 11th, tsimbl master Pete Rushefsky, “one of the main people I’ve played with in the past eight years,” Rubin said. “He’s played on two of my three most recent albums,” he added.
The most recent of Rubin’s albums, on the other hand, involves a seemingly improbable collaboration with Uri Caine. “Azoy Tsu Tsveyt” was made for the Tzadik label and has been in stores for about a month.
How did a seeming traditionalist like Joel Rubin come to be recording with the iconoclastic pianist for John Zorn?
“In the past few years I’ve been talking with John,” Rubin explained. “For a long time he wanted me to do something [for Tzadik]. I’ve known Uri for a long time, I like his music a lot but we had never tried to play together. I don’t view myself as a jazz improviser, but in the ‘70s into the mid-‘80s I was playing a lot of contemporary art music and free improvisation, so it’s not such a leap.”
The result is a fascinating confrontation, the most “outside” playing you are likely to hear from Rubin anytime soon, with his more conventional clarinet lines moving at oblique angles towards Caine’s cubistic electric piano parts. Sometimes it sounds like two different sessions that were inadvertently mixed together, but frequently the two highly creative musicians strike sparks off each other to telling effect.
“I wanted us to find a way to feature him doing what he’s good at and me doing what I’m good at and having us meet in the middle,” Rubin said. When a reporter noted that the album has a loose spontaneity that is very different from his more traditional klezmer records, he replied, “It’s kind of like exposed beams in an apartment. We don’t try to hide anything. I like that. It was very spontaneous, so there are moments that are better than others. I think the more we play together, the better it would get, and I hope this would give us an opportunity to continue the dialogue.”
Of course, continuing the dialogue would require making time in both their busy schedules, but Rubin looks at his teaching and research work as an integral part of the music-making process, and vice versa.
“Teaching forces me to articulate things that, when I just play, I don’t think about on an intellectual level at all,” he said. “When I start playing clarinet I’m really just thinking about the music and what the music wants to say, not ‘Am I doing this correctly, does it sound like so-and-so?’ I really don’t think about that stuff when I’m playing.”
And he still thinks of himself as a performer first.
“It flows in both directions, but I don’t feel like an ethnomusicologist when I’m performing, and everything I do as a scholar is informed by my performer self,” he said. “Ethnomusicology has given me a deeper understanding of the tradition, including what’s going on right now. I have great relationships with people who are at the cutting edge musically, and what they’re doing informs me as well. I’m not interested in historical reconstructions — not as a performer. I’ve always wanted to do something in the present that was informed by the past. We’re playing today. It’s all a reflection of our contemporary society, even if we’re drawing on the past.”
Joel Rubin will be performing on clarinet with Pete Rushefsky on tsimbl on Tuesday, Oct. 11 at the Sixth Street Community Synagogue (325 E. Sixth St.) at 8 p.m. His new album with Uri Caine, “Azoy Tsu Tsveyt” is available on the Tzadik label.