Sunday, April 27, 2014
Jacques Schwarz-Bart - DownBeat
Players: Jacques Schwarz-Bart
Molecular Structure Transformed
The perception of voodoo in American society has been more largely formed by Hollywood than by New Orleans. It is the go-to religion when movies need unknowable rituals, indecipherable chanting and poorly lit rooms.
Tenor saxophonist Jacques Schwarz-Bart is doing what he can to change those stereotypes with his sixth release as a leader, Jazz Racine Haiti (Motema). He performs a set of traditional Haitian voodoo chants with his ensemble, driven by his fluttering horn but powered by a persistent Caribbean groove.
Schwarz-Bart grew up hearing recordings of voodoo music, often accompanied by his mother's singing. He previously had been hesitant to publicly address misconceptions about voodoo. "Initially, I never felt the legitimacy to actually tackle it since I am not of direct Haitian descent," he said. "Although I received this music from birth through my mother, I thought a Haitian should carry such a project."
Schwarz-Bart, born to novelists Andre and Simone Schwarz-Bart in the Caribbean nation of Guadeloupe, pursued a career in politics and was working for an elected official in Paris when he decided to make a change. "It turns out that nothing in the world ever gave me the type of mystical thrill that music did," he said. "There was no real choice for me. The only dilemma came from the fact that I encountered my main instrument very late in life, at age 24."
Three years after discovering the tenor saxophone, he left Paris for the Berklee College of Music. There he studied with pianist Danilo Perez and drummer Bob Moses. "If you give yourself the option to look back, you've already lost," he said. "Once I decided to leave it all behind, I burned every bridge I could so that I would force myself to embrace my identity as a musician."
Since graduating from Berklee, he has been based in New York, working alongside musicians like trumpeter Roy Hargrove and r&b singer D'Angelo.
In 2006, Schwarz-Bart traveled to a gig in Morocco, where he had a life-changing experience. A Gnawa priest invited him to attend a ceremony, and he went along out of curiosity. "I was transfixed for twelve hours, unable to move a finger," he recalled. "I felt like I traveled to the end of the cosmos and back. When I was able to get back on my feet, I felt like my molecular structure had been transformed. That's when I realized the connection that I had always had with voodoo. Whether or not I was born Haitian became absolutely insignificant. I realized the connection was primarily to Africa."
The title Jazz Racine Haiti simply means "jazz roots Haiti." The album features two Haitian priests on vocals, and the jazz players on board include bassist Ben Williams, drummer Obed Calvaire and trumpeter Etienne Charles. Familiarity with voodoo chants is not a prerequisite for enjoying the music, and the leader's respect for the source material is evident. The propulsive grooves and his confident tenor lines gracefully meld the two worlds.
"It was a concern of mine that some [members of the voodoo community] would question my position, but it turns out that my presentation is totally in line with what they see of themselves," Schwarz-Bart said. "There is no way to see me as anything but an ally."
Jacques Schwarz-Bart @ DownBeat