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Jacques Schwarz-Bart's Afro-Caribbean Odyssey

Photo credit: Christian Ducasse

John Chacona By

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It's still thrilling to create music, however you do it, and to tackle an original composition and see something beautiful come out of it.
—Jacques Schwarz-Bart
The saxophonist Jacques Schwarz-Bart was born on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe in the shadow of La Grande Soufrière, which is both an active volcano and the highest mountain in the Lesser Antilles. Both aspects of that peak get to the heart of Schwarz-Bart's career, which has been characterized by rapid ascents and explosive creativity.

About those heights: Schwarz-Bart, who is 58, didn't take up the saxophone until he was 24 years old. Three years later, he was a student at Boston's Berklee School of Music (he is now an associate professor).

After graduating, the saxophonist fell in with the collective of younger, mostly R&B musicians known as the Soulquarians who birthed the neo-soul movement in the mid-1990s. When the singer and multi-instrumentalist D'Angelo, perhaps the most prominent member of the collective, assembled a band for a 2000 tour, Schwarz-Bart was asked to join. The tour has lately been recognized as a watershed moment for neo-soul, but its influence on jazz is equally profound (author Nate Chinen explains this persuasively in his book Playing Changes: Jazz For The New Century—Pantheon Books, 2018), as was its effect on Schwarz-Bart's nascent career. A high point came when he joined trumpeter Roy Hargrove's groundbreaking RH Factor band, which integrated the sound of the Soulquarians into a jazz context.

Yet despite his presence at an earthquake in American music, Schwarz-Bart continued to feel the pull of his native island, and like the diplomat he was trained to become at the French School of Government, he left RH Factor in 2005 to initiate a project that would integrate the sound of Guadeloupean music into a jazz context.

The Gwoka Project, named for the distinctive hand drums of the island, recorded two albums for Emarcy/Universal, Soné Ka La (Universal, 2007) and Abyss (Emarcy/Universal, 2008). Schwarz-Bart's interest in the music of former French colonies in the Caribbean extended to Haiti with his Jazz Racine Haiti project and Voodoo Trio. Last year, he returned to gwoka music with the second installment of his Soné Ka La project documented on Soné Ka La 2-Odyssey (Yellowbird, 2021).

With this ambitious recording, Schwarz-Bart has woven together multiple strands of his musical interests: lilting gwoka rhythms, breezy vocals and lyrical saxophone episodes, all enfolded in a production that honors the seductive vibe of neo-soul.

From his home in Boston, Schwarz-Bart spoke to All About Jazz about Soné Ka La 2-Odyssey, the relatively low visibility of the music of former French colonies in the Caribbean and the way that music might emerge from the crucible of 2020 in changed form.

All About Jazz: How have you been over this last year and how have you coped with the pandemic and the changes to life and livelihood that it has imposed on all of us?

Jacques Schwarz-Bart: I was not able to travel and all my dates and tours were canceled. So, [the pandemic] forced me to focus on the Boston scene, becoming more grounded in my actual surroundings, because when you're on the road all the time you're everywhere, but you're nowhere, really. And it's reinforced my bonds with my family here, my wife and my son. It forced me to look at my playing from another light, and maybe to question some of my habits, both technical, mental and aesthetic. I think I'm going to come out of this pandemic having reinvented my playing, to some extent, and I wrote some compositions that I'm very proud of. One of them in particular, which I think captures the heaviness of the racial situation in America, is called "Dreaming of Freedom." It's about the experience of a very close friend of mine, who was incarcerated for 30 years at age 16. And, of course, we know that wouldn't be the case if he was white.

So, there were quite a few blessings that came with this limited motion, and inability to continue touring as I have over the past 25 years. I will tell you that there is a much clearer perspective on what really matters in life. This is a very common thing to say, but it is nevertheless true: what does matter to me is love and music. I was wondering also, for years, about venturing into other artistic disciplines, but this long period of COVID reinforced my commitment to just be a musician.

AAJ: Can you tell me how your playing has changed, or how your approach to music has changed this past year?

JS-B: What I would say is that I have kind of homed in on the details of a concept that I call rhythmic melody concepts, where I don't focus on the usual eighth-note grid that is found in jazz music, but I think of improvisation strictly in terms of syncopation, just like a gwoka drum from the Caribbean or from Senegal. African percussion was my first instrument with the gwoka drums from Guadeloupe.

AAJ:Can you describe the difference between the music of the French Caribbean, which I think is criminally unknown in this country, and the way the African diaspora articulated music in other parts of the Caribbean?

JS-B:As you know, there are many African rhythmic traditions and each tradition springs from a different religious and spiritual set of rituals. So, you had the Voodoo religion that was the predominant spirituality all over West Africa. It was applied differently in Dahomey, in Togo, in Nigeria, in Mali, but people worshiped similar deities and the combinations specific to each location. In the Caribbean, each Island, each plantation created a number of different traditions. For instance, if you take Haiti and Cuba, some of the deities have similar names, but you also have deities that have different names but the same function in the respective pantheon of Haitian Voodoo and Cuban Santería. And interestingly enough, this similar spirituality gave birth to very different rhythmic and melodic traditions from one island to the other. For instance, the Cuban rhythms of rumba, they jump, but even within Cuba the batá tradition is much more flowing. Batá is much more related to the type of rhythms that you can find in the French Caribbean islands. So, conceptually, the phrasing of batá music is almost antithetic to the phrasing of rumba music within the same country of Cuba. Batá phrasing is laid back, behind the beat. You find the same type of phrasing in Brazilian music, and that relaxed, flowing type of phrasing is what you find in jazz music as well.

What I did not want to do when I created the Soné Ka-La concept was to play American jazz over Caribbean rhythms. I wanted to create melodies and use harmonies and syncopated bass lines that all fit together with the rhythms that I grew up playing and listening to, creating a whole universe where all the parts somehow reinforce each other and the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. One aspect that was very important to me all along was creating basslines that do not accentuate the fundamental rhythms, but on the contrary, respond to them and generate an even greater rhythmic counterpoint. I learned about a similar concept when I was working with MeShell NdegeOcello. At first, working with her I was thinking to myself, 'Why is she so detail-oriented when it comes to the writing of the basslines and the contrast with the details of the accents inside the group?' I thought at first that the whole thing was a little anal, and then it all became clear to me that this dialogue between bass and drums was so key to generating a certain type of groove at the confluence of complexity and simplicity. When I started elaborating my concept, I knew that it's something that I would take away from my experience with Meshell. What you're hearing in Soné Ka-La is the result of all my experiences, in experimentation in music made on the American side with jazz music, soul music, gospel music, funk and soul, and on the African diaspora with what you can find in Caribbean jazz, whether it's Latin, English or French, but also some Brazilian elements. It's all this.

AAJ: The kind of music that you made with the Soultronics and RH Factor might have been seen at one time as an interesting tributary to jazz, but it seems like that music is finally being dealt with in a very big way by a lot of artists these many years later. Is it gratifying for you to see that? And how do you feel about being present at the creation of a distinct genre?

JS-B:You know, it's interesting how, when you've lived long enough, the music industry comes to see that you were a part of history, especially when you're still active. That also makes me reflect on my choices, because when I got signed to Universal Jazz, I could have embraced that trend—especially since I had contributed to the RH Factor as a writer, having written the single of the album, "Forget Regret." But it mattered so much to me to complete this vision of a gwoka jazz concept. More than anything, I feel that without completing that project, my journey would not be complete as a musician.

AAJ: Have you completed the gwoka project? Or is there something yet to come?

JS-B: The concept itself exists, so that's step one. Now, within the concept a number of albums are supposed to come out. There was Soné Ka-La, then there was Abyss. Now there's Soné Ka-La 2-Odyssey. And also, from that Soné Ka-La concept, I branched out to Voodoo Jazz, including my knowledge of Haitian Voodoo music that I received at birth from my mom. So, there have been seven or eight projects that came out of this original Soné Ka-La concept already. It's a story that will end with my life or not, you know? All the other musicians who are part of Soné Ka-La 2, when they are interviewed about how they form their musical identity, they all mentioned the original Soné Ka-La as part of the building blocks. So, somehow, it's something that that will be, I think, my legacy. And if I don't contribute anything else, at least in the realm of music, it's already probably the most significant part of what I wanted to contribute.

Now, as you mentioned, I'm always proud to think of having been a part of this new type of jazz that has become so prevalent today. And it actually helps me a lot to relate to all my students because they all have albums that I have been a part of, at least as a saxophonist, if not as a saxophonist and a composer. So, I don't have to put my foot down to get respect from my students!

AAJ: After the year we've just experienced it seems that the artistic landscape and the way that artists work is going to change. Change was certainly forced upon you this past year, and there might be certain things that you'll want to discard, but maybe other things you'll want to keep. What are you going to throw away and what are you going to retain and maybe expand on and develop?

JS-B: So, let's start with my personal experience. I think what I will take from this is, first resiliency, being able to maintain the discipline of practicing and writing music not knowing if you will ever be able to perform in front of other people ever again. It took a lot. I'm sure all the musicians that you talk to, if they're honest at least, will acknowledge that there were periods of paralysis and discouragement and lack of motivation.

AAJ: You experienced that too?

JS-B: Of course, I did, but I have always been able to rely on my sense of discipline and self-motivation, and when I decided to get back in gear, it was not like a supreme effort on my end. I just had to decide to do it. Still I had to fight the idea that, possibly, I might not be able to do this anymore, at least not at the scale that I was used to. And that thought was depressing and it took seven months of faith and resilience to be able to keep going, to keep searching, but also finding joy in the process— and just letting go of any transactional aspect of the practice, doing it just because you are a bird and you sing the song. So, that's the first aspect of it.

The second aspect is the discovery of how much you can accomplish collaborating at a distance with other musicians. I have been a part of several projects that involved passing around tracks and performances and building on them in the solitude of your own home studio. So, that's one of the things that will be long lasting: how much you can accomplish via Zoom and file transfers.

AAJ: Did you like working that way?

JS-B: You know, I can't say that I enjoy it as much as playing live with other musicians, but it's still passionate and it's still thrilling to create music, however you do it, and to tackle an original composition and see something beautiful come out of it. I'm always amazed at how no journey goes from just thinking of an idea to actually having a piece of music that can make somebody cry or that can bring joy in somebody's life. It's almost as mysterious as life itself. So that, that's the second aspect.

Now, there is a third aspect, the financial reality of the live scene post-COVID. First of all, Europe is still in a bad shape regarding COVID. They are literally in the middle of their third wave right now [ed.: The interview was conducted in late April] and with no short-term end in sight because vaccine distribution coupled with hesitancy is much, much, much more challenging over there than it is in the United States, believe it or not,

AAJ: That is hard to believe.

JS-B: Let me give you an example: at this stage, several countries, such as France, and others, have only vaccinated 7% of their entire population. Vaccine hesitancy is much, much, much higher in in France than it is in America, Close to 60% of the people in France have declared, at least at this stage, that they will not take the vaccine. That's incredibly, absolutely depressing, because the longer this virus spreads around, the more barriers are going to come out.

AAJ: How do you think the scene is going to change: for the better, the worse or will it just be different?

JS-B: For the moment for the worse, because that there will be less and less money to invite people to cover travel costs for American musicians or world-class musicians, wherever they are, to travel to other countries. And so the scene is going to become protectionist, local, shriveled upon itself. I think it is going to be harder to think big, both in terms of the commercial impact of a project and the collaboration between people of different origins who live in different parts of the world. And so it's going to be music, whether it's jazz or otherwise, that is pretty much local. On one hand, it will probably help musicians that that couldn't really make it to the largest stage, but on the other hand, I think it's going to be a negative for the quality of the music at-large.

AAJ: The arc of the music at-large is toward collaboration and inclusion, but you could make the case that these little local scenes that are, as you said, collapsed in on themselves and shriveled, can also become little petri dishes of a highly concentrated style or idea—one that might break out someday like a virus. Could this be the best-case scenario?

JS-B: Absolutely. It's possible that out of this capturing of all the pieces of the mosaic, you will find islands of creation where you will have more differentiated types of jazz that will come out. And if that's the final result, then it will be for the best, because the more variety, the better eventually. But it's possible also that we will lack a pretty important element of excellence, which is emulation, challenge, competition. And if this second aspect is more important than the first, then it's possible that the general level of music production might suffer. So, let's keep an open mind and hope that the first scenario will be the one.

Every time frontiers close and people are trapped in one place, which was a case already with 9-11, and now with COVID, it's like a forest fire. So many trees are burned to the ground, but then there is a period of rejuvenation and renewal and rebirth. A lot of people that today are totally under the radar, young, young, young people who are 18, 19, that nobody's paying attention to, will probably come up with some extraordinary things. I'm really looking forward to being a part of it myself, because I collaborate with a lot of young people, just by being surrounded by extraordinary talents at Berklee or just as a listener or music fan. You know, I'm wondering what the rebirth will look and sound like.

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