Tom Rozum doesn’t hide his light under a bushel, but he’s not hanging it on the front porch either. A mandolin master and powerfully evocative vocalist, the longtime Berkeley resident is best known as Laurie Lewis’s closest musical collaborator, whether she’s playing her original songs or bluegrass and old-time material with the Right Hands.
Some two decades after the release of his sole solo album, the 1998 cult favorite Jubilee (Signature Sounds), Rozum is leading a gig under his own name for the first time since Bill Clinton was president. Tommy and the Rozumatics play the Back Room on Friday, one of several gigs that came together at the urging of three leading figures in new acoustic music: cellist and fiddler Tristan Clarridge, hammer dulcimer wizard and bassist Simon Chrisman, and fiddle star Brittany Haas (who’s on a brief break from her regular gig in the Prairie Home Companion House Band). Pent up demand seems to have brought the Rozumaniacs out in force. After the first show sold out, The Back Room added a second show (the band performs at 7:30 p.m. and 9:45 p.m.)
Rozum is the first to admit that temperamentally he’s far more comfortable as a sideman than as a bandleader. “That’s just my personality,” he says. “I’m not a self-promoter. When Jubilee came out I got all these great reviews and I did one concert at the Freight, and that was it. I’ve got a website I call a cobweb-site that I haven’t updated in a few years.”
While Jubilee looks like an all-star session, Rozum just gathered together some of his musical buddies, including fiddler Darol Anger, guitarist/mandolinist Mike Marshall, bassist Todd Phillips, guitarist/banjo player Herb Pedersen, and of course Lewis. Clarridge and Haas came of age under the tutelage of Anger and Lewis, and went on to perform together in the influential newgrass combo Crooked Still (which launched the career of vocal star Aoife O’Donovan). They also played occasional gigs in a sibling ensemble with their older sisters, fiddler Tashina Clarridge and cellist Natalie Haas.
They all cite Jubilee as a formative influence. When a friend gave Tristan a copy of the album some 15 years ago “we listened to it a lot and really wore it out,” he says. “I know Britany listened to it a lot too, and when she brought this idea to me and Simon a couple of years ago we were immediately excited.”
As a young musician, he was particularly drawn to the title track, which was written by fiddler and Berklee College of Music songwriting professor Mark Stimos, inspired by a song of the same name by Appalachian singer and dulcimer player Jean Ritchie. Rozum’s lyrical modern-roots sensibility “was really formative on my musical style,” Clarridge says. “Listening to one song so much informs how you think about music. All the songs are great, and the kind of expression Tom puts behind his vocals always got to me.”
The unusual instrumentation means that the Rozumatics will be reinventing all of the material they explore, which includes classic country tunes, Merle Haggard ballads, Ralph Stanley laments, cautionary Louvin Brother tales, and Bill Monroe bluegrass. Chrisman, who plays with the Clarridges in the chamber-bluegrass Celtic trio The Bee Eaters, says the unorthodox lineup isn’t a problem.
“Everyone’s got a really strong personality,” Chrisman says. “We all have our own unique but strongly grounded sense of rhythm, which is a priority for all of us.”
Lewis suggested the name Rozumatics for the new project as a riff on the popular Modesto combo the Maddox Brothers and Rose. A major influence on many country and rockabilly performers, the family band toured widely from the 1930s through the ‘50s and billed themselves as “America’s Most Colorful Hillbilly Band.” The word play is eminently fitting for a Rozum project, as it’s hard to separate his stellar musicianship from his puckish sense of humor.
The original art work on Jubilee features Rozum’s faux vintage advertisements for necessities like “The Original Carter Family Action Figures” and “X-Ray-Vision Spectacles (Bandleaders—Worried that your band members aren’t wearing the proper undergarments at gigs?)” While Rozum is reissuing the album, the software he created the album art with is too antiquated to work with (remember PageMaker?), so the cult mystique around Jubilee is only going to grow when it’s repackaged.
Rozum’s expansive repertoire reflects his wide-ranging experience as a player. Turned on bluegrass and early jazz in college (where in majored in biology), he ended up in San Diego playing jazz-inflected pre-World War II string band music with the Rhythm Rascals. It was on a Bay Area trip with the group for a gig at KPFA that he first played with Laurie Lewis when she subbed for the group’s bassist. They kept in touch after he moved to Flagstaff and joined Flying South, a bluegrass and Western swing band. After a stint playing country music in Mesa, he moved up to Berkeley in 1984.
Rozum started playing around the Bay Area with a swing-oriented string band Back Up and Push. Lewis was in the Grant Street String Band at the time, when it broke up she took some time off and ended up releasing her first solo album, 1986’s Restless Rambling Heart (Flying Fish). “Tim O’Brien helped produce it, his first album as a producer,” Rozum says. “I was one of the first people she asked to be in a band to promote that album.”
He’s been playing with her ever since in almost every one of her aggregations, focusing a good deal of his creative energy on the often self-effacing art of being an accompanist. It’s a craft that fellow musicians like Clarridge and Chrisman truly appreciate, even while hoping that the Rozumatics performances inspire him to think about recording more on his own.
“This collaboration is many things,” Clarridge says. “If I were to think of a short-list of musicians I’d love to apprentice with and learn more from the depth of their musicality, Tom would be right up there. I love the sound of how he puts music together, how he grooves. His rhythmic sense is really deep. It’s a great way to have a reason to experience that the inside. Another motivation is so that people listen to music that’s great and under exposed. He’s not out there playing it, but maybe that’s start changing a bit.”