James Wrubel Tunes His Piano to Jazz

Jazz pianist James Wrubel at his Highlands home. Catch Wrubel's return to The Jazz Bakery in Culver City on April 13, when he accompanies Leslie Drayton & Fun.
Jazz pianist James Wrubel at his Highlands home. Catch Wrubel’s return to The Jazz Bakery in Culver City on April 13, when he accompanies Leslie Drayton & Fun.
Photo by Rich Schmitt, Staff Photographer

By MICHAEL AUSHENKER Staff Writer ‘When you sit a kid down to practice in front of a 5 ft. by 8 ft. window with a view of the Pacific Palisades,’ says local jazz pianist James Wrubel, ‘it’s a little difficult to concentrate.’ Yet despite his youthful restlessness, those childhood classical music lessons have paid off. Today, Wrubel actively performs around the Los Angeles jazz circuit. At a recent Jazz Bakery gig, Wrubel, sharply dressed in black, brings an easy rapport with his audience to the stage. About 50 people, mostly in their 20s and including a cross-section of Santa Monica College’s History of Jazz class, gather on this splendorous Sunday afternoon to take in the James Wrubel Trio’s musical stylings. The baseline in his voice carries Wrubel’s laid back, self-deprecating dry wit to the back rows of the Culver City venue, located in the heart of a converted bread factory. ‘If you’re bored, Levitz [Furniture], across the street, is having a 70 percent off sale,’ quips the young musician. With the magenta ‘Jazz Bakery’ logo projected behind him onto a blue-to-violet gradated screen, Wrubel himself projects maturity beyond his 25 years, the spotlight sharpening his carrot top good looks. Backed by fellow USC jazz messengers Christopher Hackman on upright bass and a plaid-clad Brian Carmody tossing off staccato, Glen Krupa-esque drum boogie riffs, Wrubel gamely leads his trio into a frisky cover of the late Michael Brecker’s ‘Slings and Arrows.’ Mid-gig, a solo Wrubel caroms his way through an unorthodox rendition of the classic ‘Over the Rainbow.’ The James Wrubel Trio, which also plays ‘It Could Happen To You’ and ‘Nature Boy,’ embraces all jazz subgenres–from ragtime to big band to Dixieland and hard bop. Music always came naturally to the lifelong Palisadian. Wrubel, who went to Carl Thorpe School and still resides in the Highlands, grew up as something of a prodigy. ‘My mom knew at [age] two or three because I could hum a tune,’ he says. ‘I was born premature. I was late talking but I could hum. When I was little, I could pick up things off the TV and I could play it on the piano.’ As a five year-old, Wrubel actually corrected a piano teacher who was playing the ‘Jeopardy’ theme (‘He played it in the wrong key’). Theme songs and cartoon soundtracks–the destination of many a jazz player– have no appeal to Wrubel. The thought of applying his gift commercially in this fashion makes this jazz purist shudder. ‘I’m really not interested in scoring films,’ says Wrubel, who has a sister, 28, working in the film industry. ‘It’s a great life if you can get the work.’ Wrubel remembers how his dad, who never acted on his promise despite receiving a full scholarship from Juilliard, once picked up his dormant clarinet, after many years of musical inactivity, and blew ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ for his young son. Wrubel was only 12 when his father, an aerospace engineer, died of cancer in 1993. And yet, he insists his father’s death did not alter or further his musical path. ‘It made me more introspective as a person,’ he says. Attending Crossroads was indeed a crossroads for the classically trained Wrubel, whose interest in jazz blossomed at the Santa Monica-based school. It was while attending Crossroads, Wrubel notes, that ‘my friend brought me the album ‘Kind of Blue’ by Miles Davis. Right after my dad passed away, I found out that my dad had a massive jazz collection and I popped it right in.’ Soon, Wrubel began digging the sounds of Bill Evans, Horace Silver, and Dave Brubeck. Cannonball Adderley (whose choreographer niece, Janet Adderley, runs the Adderley School on Palisades Drive) was another one of Wrubel’s jazz heroes. Back at The Bakery show, the James Wrubel Trio chugs along full-throttle. Wrubel kicks off one tune with some deliberately off-key ivory tickling. As the song builds steam toward a runaway train tempo, the rhythm section jumps aboard for the ride, pushing the pace faster and faster before the number runs out of locomotive juice, gliding slowly and smoothly towards its finale. Wrubel attributes his discipline to practicing to his longtime teacher Palisadian Nancy Arnold, who taught him from age six right through high school and continues to show support. ‘One of the things that was striking about James is that when he and his sister came to audition for me, he did not want me to leave. His mother kind of had to drag him out. To this day, I noticed, he cannot walk by a piano without playing it. It was inspirational for me to teach him.’ Wrubel has also studied with Palisades jazzman John Rangel. By the time he reached Dartmouth (class of 2004), Wrubel fell into a pocket of older musicians, many of them jazz guitarists, who became his mentor figures. ‘It was kind of informal–Eddie Palimieri, Wynton Marsalis, Stefon Harris, Cuban/Latin jazz guys Arturo O’Farrill–they would come to perform, conduct master classes, listen to you play and offer critiques.’ The irony is not lost on Wrubel, that in predominantly WASP-y New Hampshire, he got his crash course on international, multiethnic music. These days, Wrubel adds, ‘My focus has shifted to contemporary players. I like harmony, I like big chords. I play everything from salsa, Latin jazz and bossanova.’ Everything except, perhaps, the music that most people his age listen to. He’s just not interested. ‘I could, but it’s not challenging, technically and harmonically.’ Yet for all of his rejection of contemporary groups, the James Wrubel Trio often opens their second set with their twist on the suicidal-somber ‘Exit Music (For a Film),’ a Radiohead track from the closing credits of (appropriately enough) Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Romeo + Juliet.’ So, you see, the Trio isn’t your grandfather’s jazz combo. Currently a pre-med student enrolled at USC, Wrubel remains content to practice his creative outlet on the side. This is not a bad jazz city,’ Wrubel says of L.A.’s small but loyal jazz community. ‘Los Angeles has a good variety of clubs and musicians.’ Along the Jazz Bakery’s wall, mammoth oils of Armstrong, Holiday, and Miller smile out of the darkness. If casual jazz guy James Wrubel doesn’t watch his back, his portrait may one day join them.