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Ace of Bass: Frontman Michael Feinberg
Michael Feinberg, the jazz bassist who will bring his band to Chris’ Jazz Café in Philadelphia on May 9, can trace his gift for creating and making music to his father.
Dr. Bruce Feinberg, an Oxford Circle native and graduate of Temple University and Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine who has become an Atlanta-based cancer specialist, is still legendary within the family for his childhood musical inclinations.
“Every Passover when my dad was a kid,” Feinberg recalls, “he would sing a song he wrote about being left out of Easter — that mentions the Jewish Exponent! — to the tune of ‘Your Easter Bonnet.’ ”
Fittingly, his son, in addition to acclaim for his original compositions, has become one of the foremost interpreters of jazz standards of his generation. The 27-year-old Feinberg has just released Live at 800 East with his band Humblebrag, his fifth offering as a bandleader. That number would be notable just for the fact that Feinberg is only five years removed from the music program at the University of Miami and barely 12 months post-master’s degree in music from New York University. What makes this success even more remarkable is that Feinberg plays bass, an instrument not usually known for producing bandleaders.
“It has a lot to do with the traditional role of a bass player in an ensemble and the type of personality of bass players — it’s the blue-collar job on the bandstand,” Feinberg acknowledges. In the next breath, he points out that there have always been bassists who fronted their own groups, including contemporaries like Esperanza Spalding, Dave Holland and John Patitucci, among others.
Like the abovementioned musicians, Feinberg’s style is hard to define beyond using the catchall “fusion” descriptor. On Live at 800 East, the selections swing from the hushed balladry of “Untitled 2” to the Crescent City funk of “Duckface” to a hip-hop-tinged homage to the long-lived Law and Order: SVU character played by the former rapper Ice-T, “Tutuola.”
Feinberg says that such an inclusive, catholic approach to playing is simply a reflection of his favorite music growing up. In addition to genre-bending rock groups like The Beach Boys, Grateful Dead and Bruce Springsteen, he vividly remembers the first time he became aware of the possibilities of jazz: a Thelonius Monk album he discovered in his father’s collection shortly before he went to a summer music program at Berklee College of Music.
He was also influenced by the sounds that surrounded his family’s deep involvement in Jewish life. He and his siblings all went to the Solomon Schechter school in Atlanta, his mother has served as a board member of the local Jewish federation and his family would go every summer to visit his maternal grandmother in Israel.
Having the liturgical music of his youth permeate his work now “is something ingrained; it is unavoidable,” he says, “just like the jazz musicians who say they learned about music in church. I don’t write Jewish songs, but there is definitely some influence from experiences and specific moments.” As an example, he cites a song he wrote for his 2009 release, Evil Genius, titled simply, “WZK June 2007.” The klezmer-inflected composition came in response to Feinberg’s visit to concentration camps in Poland that year.
As works like The Elvin Jones Project, a 2012 tribute album to the legendary drummer, demonstrate, Feinberg is an apt pupil of the jazz canon. But even a cursory listen to his recent work reveals his love of risk-taking, to push the traditional boundaries. This approach even applies to naming his current band — “humblebrag” is sure to be one of the leading candidates for the 2014 Word of the Year to be added into the Oxford dictionary. As of now, it can be found on the go-to definer of all types of slanguage, UrbanDictionary.com with this entry: “Subtly letting others know about how fantastic your life is while undercutting it with a bit of self-effacing humor or ‘woe is me’ gloss.”
Feinberg chose the name as a tongue-in-cheek way to call out his compatriots who embody the word, saying the practice has become pervasive in the young artists’ community in New York.
“I thought it would be funny to have a name that was poking fun at itself, not taking itself too seriously. I love it when an artist says something like, ‘What a blessing it is to share the stage with Pat Metheny’ — if you were really humbled by it, you wouldn’t need to share it with the world!”
Another reason he gets so frustrated with that kind of attitude among his fellow musicians, he says, is because it is so difficult to make it as a professional jazz artist, despite the outward trappings of success like sold-out tours and multiple releases.
“It’s not an extremely easy lifestyle,” he says matter-of-factly. “I’m still learning that to be a jazz musician today, you have to not only be extremely proficient at your own instrument, but also a guru at marketing, a public relations person and a composer and arranger proficient in many different styles. A lot of what we end up doing is teaching lessons, doing work for hire at restaurants, cocktail parties — and playing jazz clubs, with a festival or concert hall once in a while.”
IF YOU GO
Michael Feinberg’s Humblebrag
May 9 at 8 p.m. at Chris’ Jazz Café
1421 Sansom Street, Philadelphia