Gary Bartz Bridges Generations

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Baltimore native Gary Bartz has remained uniquely engaged both musically and politically throughout his lengthy career.

(Photo: The Artform Studio)

Gary Bartz has watched the slow roll of history drag on, first from the vantage point of his childhood home in Baltimore, then in New York and the rest of the world while on tour.

The experiences have given the saxophonist perspective and a unique voice, one that’s resonated with generations of musicians and listeners.

“They’re our kids—the hip-hop generation. Jay-Z, his mom and dad used to come to The East to see me and to see Pharoah [Sanders]. All these kids had those records in their homes. ... It’s an extension of what we’re doing—I saw that immediately,” Bartz, 80, said during a late-December Zoom call from his current, well-lighted home in Oakland, California.

Hearing that slant from the saxophonist explains how in 2020 he was able to record a pair of albums with performers decades younger than him, while remaining engaged with the students he teaches at Oberlin College and Conservatory in Ohio. But Bartz—whose work frequently has been sampled by hip-hop producers—still sees a need for change, musically and otherwise.

“We came up in a time when you couldn’t just say certain things. I mean, it was bad enough if you didn’t say things. So, if you said things, it was really bad—because we don’t own anything,” Bartz said. “I grew up in a segregated city: Baltimore, Maryland. Totally segregated, everything: the nightclubs, the movie theaters. In the so-called ‘public park,’ there was the so-called ‘Black tennis court,’ the so-called ‘white tennis court.’ Everything was segregated: My mom couldn’t try on clothes in department stores. To think that in this ‘modern age,’ something like that in this ‘democracy’—it’s still happening. I mean, this is the most segregated country I’ve ever seen.”

Bartz has maintained both a dedication to espousing the reality he sees and furthering musical explorations, something he was able to do with a UK ensemble for the Night Dreamer release Gary Bartz & Maisha—Night Dreamer Direct-To-Disc Sessions, as well as on the latest entry in the Jazz Is Dead catalog. On that latter album, JID006, the composer works alongside accomplished multi-instrumentalists Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, a co-founder of hip-hop troupe A Tribe Called Quest.

“I don’t want this to be out of place, but I feel that [Bartz and his peers] were fighting for something really important and valuable at the time—and that’s why I’m kind of cautious in the way I say it,” Muhammad recently told DownBeat during a Zoom interview from his Los Angeles enclave.

“When [Bartz] walked into the studio, I was like, ‘Who is this 30-something-year-old man coming in here?’ Because his energy level was just that youthful. But there’s periods of his work that made such a difference in trying to push back against what life was like for them in their younger days. No differently than what Tribe was doing when we were 19. No different than what the younger generations are doing right now with the way that America is. And it still matters. It’s very important to always make that connection, to never disconnect from all the adversity that these luminaries had to go through, just to bring their horn into a room, to bring their guitar into a room, bring their drumsticks into a room. It’s really important, and their music still matters. It’s just that simple.

“It may seem a bit cliche, but it really is important, which is what Jazz Is Dead is all about. It’s really highlighting these luminaries and showing that their art matters, and it should be celebrated and should be honored. Blow the dust off of it, listen to it again and again and learn something new. I guarantee you heard one song 20 years ago and you’d hear it differently now.”

Muhammad and Younge recently have released similarly premised recordings with vibraphonist Roy Ayers, keyboardist Doug Carn and Brazilian fusionists Azymuth, among others. But the albums grew out of live events the pair held while being spurred on by their manager, Dru Lojero, who was looking to spotlight jazz’s current viability and vibrancy—in a prepandemic era, at least. There’re more albums on the way, too. The only requirement seems to be that would-be collaborators deeply influenced the path Muhammad and Younge have followed.

“Well, they’re all masters. It’s like, when can they be here? The door’s open,” Muhammad said about landing musical coconspirators for the series. “When we started knocking on the door and people would see [the name] ‘Jazz Is Dead,’ they slammed the door on us. It was like, ‘Who are these people? Is this a joke? Is this real?’ Lonnie Liston Smith was one example. The fact that my name was attached to it made him go, ‘OK, what are they doing? Do they really honor jazz? Tell me more.’

“Then, it’s not until they’re physically in the room with 500 very excited people—all ages, all ethnicities—losing it, that they really go, ‘Wow, you guys are doing something really special.’ And we’re like, ‘Great. Now, can we take this across the street to the studio and capture another level of [what] you’re feeling? Because we know that your music has done everything to get us to where we are in all aspects of our career. And we know there’s a lot more in you that maybe people are not [hearing].’ So, when Adrian and I go into the studio, we take—not their greatest hits—but the feeling of the songs that have impacted us, and we go, ‘All right, that’s the foundation, and we’re going to sprinkle in some new stuff on top of it.’”

On the Azymuth recording, JID004, ensemble members unflinchingly deliver strains of Brazilian jazz with lush melodies and vibrational polyrhythms, though a bit less reliant on funk than the band’s earlier, 1970s incarnation. Carn, though, frequently sounds tentative at the organ on JID005, despite finding his footing on super-funky cuts like “Lions Walk.”

For some, entrusting their sound—and potentially their legacies—to a pair of musicians and producers from a place just adjacent to the jazz world might be difficult. Bartz, though, seemed game from the start.

Out of everything Muhammad and Younge have set to tape for the label so far, their session with the saxophonist—who contributed to recordings by Miles Davis, McCoy Tyner, Joey DeFrancesco and a raft of other jazz luminaries—easily is the most beat-centric affair, coming off like a live band recreating and extending its favorite drum breaks.

“Adrian and I, our foundation is hip-hop,” Muhammad said. “So, that means—at least in my era of hip-hop, because it’s something completely different now—it was about the breakbeat. It was about finding all those records—mostly jazz—that had the illest breakbeat sections. There’s some funk records that had some great breakbeats as well. But jazz—it was something different, even the sonics of it. When you listen to a break from a James Brown recording, it’s just different. [The drums] were mic’d differently. So, there’s that, there’s the bass line, there’s the melody.

“Listening to Gary, the other element that comes [across] in addition to those, obviously, is the freeness of his horn playing, and also some of his lyrical melodies that exist in the songs. We wanted to capture that—just those elements. ... And so, him coming in and listening to the music, we’re saying, ‘We really want you to be you.’ That’s what he did. I think that had he come in and said, ‘You know what, guys? I want to change this and I want to change that,’ we’re completely open to it and we expressed that. But he was actually comfortable with what he was hearing.”

“Spiritual Ideation,” the album’s first track, benefits from Bartz’s fantastical fluidity on alto saxophone, moving into its higher register when he feels the music needs that sort of underlining. (He picks up the soprano only for “The Message.”) The same holds true for “Distant Mode,” a tune that leans on Greg Paul’s flurry of drumming, and the round and resonant electric bass tones that have emerged as a signature of the Jazz Is Dead recordings.

“Well, for the most part, they’re like Monk and myself—the way they look at the recording process. They like the first take,” Bartz said. “I like to be prepared, but I still like first takes. I’ve had so many different musical experiences that I look at each one like an actor looks at a role. I always want to know: What is my role in this project?”

In addition to his disregard for genre designations, Bartz often summons a familiar riff that summarizes his absolute adherence to the idea of listening and serving the music, as opposed to constantly firing off self-centered aggrandizements.

“I don’t hear much music being played today,” he asserted. “I hate to say it, but all I hear is ego. It’s not about you. It’s about the music.

“When I used to walk away from listening to John Coltrane, I wasn’t thinking about him. I was thinking about the music, because that’s what he was thinking about. It wasn’t about him: ‘Look how good I am and how many notes I can play.’ Now, it’s about ego, and part of that has to do with education. This is my big beef right now. This music, created in this country by people from my community and immigrants, is the greatest music ever created on this planet. There’s been nothing close. To take a concept that started probably before Bach, and was done with Beethoven and Mozart—they all did theme and variation. They all did that. Every virtuoso can do a theme and variation. Beethoven used to ask the audience for melodies, and he would take those melodies and vary them. That’s what virtuoso musicians do. ...

“What we discovered, and this was the great thing, is how to do it with a group of people. No one could ever do a theme and variations with two people, even; if they knew each other real good, maybe they could. But with five, six, seven, a big band of people—are you kidding? So, that in itself is a heck of a step. Greatest music ever. But yet, in the school curriculums of the United States, we value more the music from another culture and country—European classical.”

That’s not the only miscalculation Bartz has worked to clarify during his career as a performer and educator. However much jazz (a term Bartz doesn’t use) is built upon the heroic notion of expressions of self, the saxophonist sees a practice believed to be integral to the form as a misnomer.

“I call it composing. People want to call it improvising. It’s not improvised. Improvising means you didn’t know what you were doing; you just did it right then,” he said. “No, 60 years of study is not an improvisation. Everything I play, I meant to play it. And when I make a mistake, that’s an improvisation—which I don’t do too many of. But no one knows it, because I know how to clean it up. Every composition should have a great beginning, good thematic material in the middle and a great ending. If that doesn’t happen, then it’s not a great composition. But every chorus of a solo, you’re recreating the theme that you’re playing on. It’s a composition; each chorus is composition, which is why it’s copyrightable. I have a plan. Every solo I take, I have a plan.”

His musical blueprint also incorporates a sociopolitical element, stretching from his time with Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln in the ’60s to his stint in the ’70s with the Mtume Umoja Ensemble and his NTU Troop, a group that sported lyrics directly and metaphorically addressing violence at home and abroad, and perhaps ranks as the closest sonic antecedent to his work with Jazz Is Dead.

“I write songs about everything, about life. And usually about something that’s interesting me at the time,” Bartz said. “Just living in this country under a racist system makes me think about it all the time, and you have to fight it. You go other places and you don’t feel it, you don’t see it. It might be there, and there may be prejudices, but those systems are not built on it. This system is built on racism and genocide. Until we figure out and decide that we want to be good human beings, it’s going to continue.

“When you’re young, you say, ‘We’re gonna fight and maybe by the time I’m 40 or 50, we will have overcome all of this.’ History is slow. We won’t see it—maybe in 200, 300 years, if ever.” DB



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June 2021
Vijay Iyer
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