Gabriel Zucker at the piano
Gabriel Zucker at the piano

Dynamic Duo

Filmmaker Adam Zucker

Filmmaker dad, musician son present their work in Michigan simultaneously.

By Suzanne Chessler, Contributing Writer

One day before the Michigan debut of his film about Jewish identity, Adam Zucker will be in the state to applaud the Michigan debut of his favorite jazz pianist and composer, son Gabriel Zucker.

The two, whose professional travels frequently take them out of New York, had no idea they had scheduled overlapping Michigan appearances until they recently talked about upcoming bookings.

Adam will be presenting The Return, as sponsored by Michigan Hillel in Ann Arbor on Jan. 24, the same night Gabriel will be performing at Cliff Bell’s in Detroit, as well as Canterbury House in Ann Arbor on Jan. 22 and Ziggy’s in Ypsilanti on Jan. 23.

Dad, 61, a longtime film editor for PBS programming, created a documentary focusing on four young Polish women who delve into their heritage and ultimately forge different religious outlooks.

“Although I am a documentary filmmaker and Jewish, I never made a Jewish film or was particularly drawn to do so; but I read an article in 2008 about the interest in Jewish culture among non-Jews in Poland,” Adam explains.

“Non-Jewish Poles put on a Jewish cultural festival, and I went. While I was there, I met a lot of young Jews, and there was a common theme of people who had not known they were Jewish but discovered that in their teens.”

He personalized this theme with those who had been raised Catholic before learning of their religious roots.

“The film captures their journey of discovering, exploring and figuring out what their Judaism means to them,” says Adam. He went to Poland a dozen times over four years to complete the film.

Adam describes his approach to films as sharing stories to understand people. Greensboro: Closer to the Truth, an earlier film, recalls a massacre by the Ku Klux Klan in 1979, and a commission that investigated the killings and their aftermath 25 years later. His current project is American Muslim, another exploration of religious identity.

After majoring in filmmaking, he concentrated on documentaries, principally as an editor. He has worked with directors Ken Burns, Rory Kennedy, Dori Bernstein and Michael Kantor, among many other notables. He started making his own independent films about 15 years ago.

“Having the opportunity to tell other people’s stories — having them be open to that and earning their trust in sharing their stories with other people — feels a bit like a calling. I take that very seriously, relish that opportunity and feel very fortunate.”

In Ann Arbor, he will speak after the screening, updating what has happened to the people in the film. He often finds young adults steer the discussion to their own experiences with Jewish identity.

As Adam looks forward to watching Gabriel on stage, he credits his wife, Amy Mereson, a flutist, with guiding their son’s musical education.

“She has a master’s in music composition and has been a composer for quite some time,” Adam says. “When Gabriel expressed an interest in music, she worked with him very closely to help find teachers and write his first song.”

Gabriel’s original musical numbers, combined with a couple of artful interpretations of others’ songs, fill the concerts scheduled for Michigan. While he plays piano and sings, leaning toward a style he calls indie jazz rock, he will be joined by his band, The Delegation, which includes Tal Yahalom on guitar, Alex Goldberg and Connor Parks on drums, and David Leon on saxophone.

Audiences will hear numbers from his 2016 recording Evergreen (Canceled World) and Leftover Beats from the Edges of Time, due out this year. “Shallow Time,” one song that joins his lyrics and music, hopes for better days.

“Our Michigan appearances will be unique because of the double drums,” says Gabriel, 28, who has received two ASCAP composition awards and 4.5 stars in Downbeat magazine. “Some of the percussion parts would be a little challenging for one drummer. With two, they also can have interlocking rhythms presenting more complexity and intensity.”

Gabriel graduated summa cum laude from Yale, where a double major focused him on music as well as ethics, politics and economics. A master’s degree in applied statistics was earned at Oxford.

His first serious professional achievement came during his senior year in college. He was commissioned to write a piece for the orchestra and jazz band of the New York Youth Symphony for its 50th anniversary gala.

“Music interests me in the way that art can move people,” Gabriel says. “It’s unlike anything else I know because it brings another dimension to experience. Sound can bring people in and change their reality.”

Aside from music, Gabriel feels a commitment to social activism. He has worked on poverty policy research at MIT and co-led a campaign to end veteran homelessness in Connecticut. His day job, as his music career is being established, is with the U.S. Digital Service providing homeless services and healthcare access at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“I’m increasingly aware of the degree to which the American Jewish community culture impacts my world view,” he says. “It affects the way I think.”

 

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