By Warren Strugatch
My late wife Cindy and I made the jazz scene at Harmony Vineyards in the mid-2010s. The venue was marvelous, the music superb. We really dug young Zach, the man-bun styled bassist who held forth from Harmony’s tiny proscenium most weekends.
Zach — first name, Keenan — stood out as both musician and band leader. Still in his 20s, his solid time evoking the legendary Ray Brown, Zach’s star was clearly on the rise. We’d walk in from the cold and listening from outside the room we’d know, from just a few notes, that Zach was on bass.
The Harmony series ended, alas, but we kept running into this bass-playing prodigy around the North Shore. Tom Manuel, artistic director and Jazz Loft founder, entrusted him with the Loft’s Wednesday Night jam sessions. Week after week, Zach organized walk-on musicians into tight, expectation-defying ensembles. Under his direction, the guys on stage sounded like they work together all the time. On any given Wednesday night, you’d hear some of the finest jazz on Long Island. In fact, you still can.
Back in those pre-Covid days we attended delightful concerts put on by the Three Village Chamber Players. Here again was Zach playing Bach, Handel, and Teleman alongside oboes, harpsichords, and theremins.
Soon thereafter, we attended an outdoor concert by Taylor Ackley and the Deep Roots Ensemble, playing Taylor’s unique hybrid brand of prairie swing. Once more, it was Zach on bass.
By now, the man-bun was history.
Between sets, Zach mentioned he’d enrolled at Stony Brook University’s doctoral program in music performance. He said his studies were weaning him from his long-time need for audience approval; he felt now he could more readily play from what he called his authentic self and feel the music was going over with audiences. Clearly, his performances continued to blossom.
As for getting a doctorate, he felt that would help hone his performances in all genres, while expanding his career options.
As Graduation Day approached, Zach reflected that his enrollment was a wise choice, having raised his appreciation for the nuances of chamber music even as it’s propelled him forward as a jazzman.
“It’s all music,” he explained in a recent conversation. “I love jazz and I love chamber music. At this point in life and musical progress, I don’t feel there is all that much difference between musical styles. It’s not like jazz is pure improvisation and classical music is entirely written out. There’s substantial structure in jazz and much room for improvisation in chamber music.
He continued, “In fact, jazz really is a kind of chamber music. Musicians listen to each other and improvise together, whether it’s a jam session or a chamber recital.”
At age 34, the Miller Place native finds himself at a musical and personal crossroads.
“I really am at a precipice,” he says. “I face so many transitions. I ask myself: What comes next? Do I move further west and compete for more gigs and opportunities in jazz? Do I get more involved in classical bass playing? Do I pursue a faculty position at a university and maybe relocate to a rural area?”
The self-questioning brings him back to a comment he’s heard at SBU more than once from Ray Anderson, the jazz trombonist, teacher, and philosopher: “Let’s play, let’s have fun and maybe, just maybe, we’ll learn something.”
Zach smiles. “That’s the essence of jazz. Right there.”