Jake Rabinbach was wasting away in Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood when he decided to come to Memphis and start an R&B band.
The son of a Princeton history prof who raised him right on Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf records, Rabinbach had long had designs on a music career but wasn't sure how to make it happen. He spent two years at Wesleyan University in Connecticut but split for New York, in part, because he thought it would help him further his music goals. Instead, he watched former Wesleyan classmates and friends Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden (son of Flyer editor Bruce VanWyngarden) strike it big when they took their college band — MGMT — global.
"I loved it there but wanted to move on," Rabinbach says of Wesleyan. "I was young and had a lot of ideas about being successful in the music field, and it seemed to me that Wesleyan wasn't the route to do that."
Rabinbach will try to follow in the footsteps of his more famous classmates this month when his little Memphis R&B band, Jump Back Jake, releases its debut album, Brooklyn Hustle/Memphis Muscle for Ardent Music.
After leaving Wesleyan, Rabinbach tried to get his career going in New York but found the going rough.
"New York is a tough place. I could never get a good band together, so I played solo acoustic a lot, which is not a lot of fun," Rabinbach remembers. "It was Williamsburg in 2002, right when everyone was writing those articles about how it was like going to San Francisco in 1967 — which was probably a bad idea then, too."
Like so many before him, Rabinbach got the Memphis bug after reading Peter Guralnick's classic book Sweet Soul Music, a work that synthesized Rabinbach's already considerable love of Memphis musicians such as Otis Redding, Al Green, and Booker T. & the MGs.
"It was this story about people operating like a family," Rabinbach says of the inspiration he got from Guralnick's book. "It seemed like people were less interested in making it than in getting together and having a good time. And through that, they created an original and creative sound. I really felt like Memphis was calling me. I decided I didn't need to be in this cultural epicenter [Williamsburg] and that maybe it would be better to go to Memphis and try to put an R&B band together."
Rabinbach first test-drove the city with a couple of brief trips and found it easy to work his way into the local music scene.
"I got invited to play a few pick-up gigs. One was at a place called XYZ, which isn't there anymore. It was an after-hours place and I think the gig started at like 4 a.m., after other bars had closed," Rabinbach says. "I was playing solo electric, mixing my own songs with punky versions of Otis Redding songs. I just wanted to play. All of a sudden I heard this drumbeat behind me — I was opening for a band — and there's this guy, shirtless, sweating, who'd just sat down and started playing. So I started yelling out cues." It was Greg Faison, then a drummer for the Memphis Break-Ups and Antique Curtains, who is now laying down the beat for Jump Back Jake.
According to Rabinbach, "We became friends pretty quickly, and when I decided to move back, I called Greg. He said, well great, he'd find a bass player and we'd start doing stuff. We had the first incarnation of the band going within two weeks of me moving here in June 2006."
Rabinbach and Faison are joined by bassist Brandon Robertson (best know for his work in Snowglobe) and guitarist Jake Vest (Third Man, Bulletproof Vests) in the core group, with Paul Morelli and Nashon Benford sometimes adding horns and other local musicians (notably, organ/piano wiz Rick Steff) filling out the sound in the studio.
You might think a group of white, ostensibly indie-rock-schooled musicians would be self-conscious about forming an R&B band, but Jump Back Jake isn't, in part by drawing inspiration from their blue-eyed-soul predecessors. Rabinbach cites artists such as Tony Joe White, the Sir Douglas Quintet, and Dan Penn as influences that helped him approach R&B-based music without self-consciousness.
"I felt like I could do this, and it wouldn't be weird, because people have been doing this for generations," Rabinbach says.
Rabinbach isn't shy about paying tribute to the band's influences.
"Most current bands borrow from music of the past," Rabinbach says. "We all do it. But I couldn't understand why nobody was trying to zero in on this thing, when it was the best thing that ever happened to American music. [With Jump Back Jake] we tried to zero in on a set of influences, knowing that all that other stuff would find its way in. But we committed to creating this sound. We don't have to talk about it as much now."
Jump Back Jake
Brooklyn Hustle/Memphis Muscle Record-Release Party, with Jack O. & the Tearjerkers
The Hi-Tone Café
Friday, December 19th
Doors open at 9 p.m.; admission is $5