Hazzan is the new release from saxophonist Jacques Schwarz-Bart embracing Jewish liturgical music, improvisational sequences, and infectious rhythms. Revolving around jazz music and hazzanout (the art of chanting Jewish prayers), Schwarz-Bart incorporates ancient melodies with modern jazz and rhythms from the African diaspora. ArkivJazz spoke with Schwarz-Bart about this very personal project and its origins.
ArkivJazz: Congratulations on Hazzan. It’s a remarkable mix of influences, has a tremendous and unique sound, and really comes off well.
Jacques Schwarz-Bart: Thank you so much.
AJ: So, what brought you to want to combine jazz with the art of hazzanout?
JSB: Ever since I was a little boy, when we would celebrate different Jewish holidays I was transfixed by the mystical content of the melodies themselves. Then added to that, there’s the message behind a lot of the prayers. Whether those are messages of introspection, messages of justice, or messages of remembering that we were slaves in Egypt and we have to lend a hand to the foreigner - all those messages add to the depth of the music. When my father passed I became somewhat obsessed with paying tribute to him and the type of man that he was. I thought that to get to the man, you had to first address the child. You might not know this, but my father faced the deportation of his family to Auschwitz when he was 12 years old.
AJ: No, I didn’t know that. From what area?
JSB: He was in the Eastern part of France at the time, in a town called Metz. That totally changed, of course, his perspective on life, the world, and God. With this project, I wanted to connect the child that existed prior to that fateful event, the one who was just like me and fascinated by the depth of those chants. I decided to go the way of the sacred rather than the profane when I embraced the idea of creating a project to his name. In addition to that, I didn’t want to add to the long list of klezmer projects, because as you know, every time people talk about Jewish jazz, klezmer music comes to mind. When I think of Jewish music, I think of the melodies from the prayers, the chants, and the hazzanout - melodies that have been surviving thousands of years now. For me, it was a no-brainer and I started delving into all the chants that I knew. At the same time, I also wanted to express aspects of Jewish culture that come from the Middle East, from North Africa, from Morocco, and from Yemen and wanted to make an educated selection, rather than relying solely on my own experience. So, after going through literally hundreds of chants, I came up with a handful of melodies that seemed to me, powerful on one hand, and on the other, rich enough in intervals that I could turn them into settings for jazz melodies. Those melodies are the canvas where I create variations, modulations, and open areas of improvisation.
AJ: You really turn it into jazz that you can play built on the foundations of traditional music.
JSB: Oh yes, it was important to me on one hand to remain absolutely true to my style of composition as a jazz musician and on the other hand to be absolutely true to the true essence of hazzanout. I wanted Jewish people to be able to recognize the melodies and I wanted people who aren’t interested in anything Jewish to be touched and moved by the music.
AJ: I think you’ve done a very good job of getting exactly that done. The first tune “Shabbat Menuka Hi,” (featuring David Linx on vocals), really sets the album up nicely. It was inspiring to start the album with a vocal tune…it really pulls you in.
JSB: Thank you. The bass line that I created to set up that melody has a Nawa flavor. Nawa music is from descendants of African slaves in Morocco, and this way I could also represent African diasporic rhythms with this album.
AJ: Well, you managed to brilliantly combine them both and the music still swings. It has that momentum to it that carries it through and holds up the jazz side. It’s also interesting that you bring in rhythm from other sources.
JSB: I’ve spent basically my entire life exploring rhythms of the African diaspora. Every time I play with a great drummer, he or she immediately hears that I have that love for rhythm.
AJ: Well, that drummer on the recording (Arnaud Doleman) certainly has a great feel…
JSB: You know, Arnaud has been playing all my projects for the last fifteen years or so. He delves into traditional jazz, Haitian jazz, and the Guyana style of jazz as well, so since he has covered all facets of my exploration. He was the perfect drummer to follow me into this new endeavor.
AJ: How did you get hooked up with Yellowbird?
JSB: It was through my publishing company. As soon as I brought to their attention the demo I made of Hazzan, they were very enthused and started making phone calls. I said that I would probably put it out myself and that it was an obscure little project I was doing for my father, but they said that people need to hear this and connected me with Enja/Yellowbird.
AJ: Well, I love its originality and think you really have something to say here that we think people will pay attention to. It’s an amazing mix and the way the band plays it, you can just feel that passion in the rhythms.
JBS: One of the things that motivated me to record was that particular band. My booking agent found a great gig at a Paris festival, and I picked this band to perform. At the first rehearsal, I really didn’t have to teach them the music, they seemed to dive in with passion and seriousness. It came to a point quickly where there was no rehearsing anymore. It was more about turning something really good into something really great, going into details, improving dynamics and injecting a kind of magic into it. This concert went so well – there were so many people who came up afterward who were very moved by the music.
AJ: When something like that clicks, you would know right away. This band feels like they’ve been together forever, and all of these songs that are listed as ‘traditional tunes’ on the back cover, sound like they were just written. The disc just gets better with every listen, and now I’m going to have to work my way back through your catalog [laughs].
JBS: Thank you so much, I really believe in this project, and that means the world to me.