Jacques Schwarz-Bart – Abyss (2009)

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by S. Victor Aaron

There’s a special class of jazz record labels whereby you don’t even have to know the artist to get an idea of the kind of music that’s in store for you when you pop in that CD for the first time. If it’s an ECM, you’re usually in for some immaculately recorded, highly-minded Euro-jazz. A classic Blue Note from the fifties or sixties is synonymous with some of the best hard bop and soul-jazz ever recorded. ESP-Disk is home to some sounds that pushes the very boundaries of what is broadly considered music. ObliqSound hadn’t been around nearly as long as those well-established marques, but to me, at least, it is the source for some of the best-conceived Afro-jazz and Afro-soul you will find anywhere today.

Lionel Loueke
, Michael Olatuja and Somi are all recent ObliqSound releases that have gotten a hearing on this space, but when Abyss by Jacques Schwarz-Bart first arrived at the Pico Pad and I noticed the record label, I already had a pretty good feeling what I was going to get from this saxophonist of Jewish-French and Guadaloupean heritage. And I wasn’t disappointed.

Schwarz-Bart, the spawn of a Holocaust survivor father and a mother who is a native of an east Caribbean French department, soaked up the rich heritage and music of Guadaloupe and the surrounding area with his parent’s encouragement. It gave him a uniquely fertile foundation that not only can be traced to the former slaves of this once-mighty hub of the colonial sugar trade, but ultimately way back to the African roots. At age six, young Jacques became smitten with jazz and picked up the guitar, eventually gigging as a guitarist in local clubs in Switzerland, where he spent much of his childhood. As a young adult, he had all but abandoned music, but was later inspired to pick it up again, this time as a saxophonist. He was serious enough to master this craft by attending the Berklee School of Music and not long after graduation moved down to New York and jumped head first into the vital music scene there. He developed enough reputation to be called upon by jazz and soul bigs alike: Roy Hargrove, Meshell N’degeocello, Danilo Perez, Soulive, D’Angelo and Erykah Badu. Schwarz-Bart had during this time developed a knack as a songwriter as well, contributing the Roy Hargrove single “Forget Regret.”

Already his fourth album, Abyss follows 2006’s Soné Ka-La, and this self-produced effort is his first for ObliqSound. Schwarz-Bart also composed all the songs, and dedicated this to his father Andre, who had passed away around the time the prior album hit the streets. The tribute to his deceased father as well as his still-living mother becomes something of a unifying theme, as Schwarz-Bart successfully pulls together all those influences he picked up in Guadaloupe, Switzerland, Boston and New York, and distilled them into world fusion that’s varied, accomplished and above all else, well-informed.

Whether blowing the tenor or the soprano saxophone (as he does so well for the breezy “Dio Pann”), Schwarz-Bart’s larger achievements on this album are creating songs that sound contemporary in a timeless way while openly embracing the Afro-Caribbean influences that shaped his life. You’re much more likely to hear percussion on songs without any drums than you are with them. With Reggie Washington’s electric bass often locked tight into the grooves with percussionists with Sonny Troupé Marké and Olivier Juste, a drummer would have only gotten in the way, and Schwarz-Bart knew that.

This perfect rapport between the three provides the foundation for most of the songs on this album. It also became the impetus for some rather fresh ideas from Schwarz-Bart. By creating a sax-dubbed front line over a back line of bass/percussion on “Mende Chiraj,” Schwarz-Bart connects big band swing to African-rooted rhythms.

“Andre” is a tribute by Jacques to his father. His emotional but tempered tenor accompanied only by a piano, it’s a tender ballad that has as many hopeful notes and sorrowful ones. Right after that in the track sequence, Schwarz-Bart’s mother Simone recites a poem of hers at the beginning of the Afro-jazz mid-tempo song that bears her name.

The title tune is one of the highest artistic peaks. The melody of “Abyss” is mysterious, surprising and subtle. The electric piano throw off a seventies vibe and combined with Schwarz-Bart’s big, confident tenor tone and worldless vocals from Elisabeth Kontomanou, softens the impact of the percussion. Right smack dab in the middle of the song comes a very tasty guitar solo by none other than John Scofield.

Vocals without lyrics, this time by Stephanie McKay, also enhance the soulful vibe of “Big Blue.” The opening “Pan Ga To” is the fastest track on the record, but even here, the tempo remains light, because Schwarz-Bart’s careful production keeps the middle of timbre range largely unfilled. It’s what also gives the sound a distinctly island vibe despite the presence of all the modern and Western instruments. The final tack “An Ba Mango La” is the most traditional of tracks, based on an old Gnawa melody complete with chants. Schwarz-Bart find a way to weave his sax around it without disturbing the sacred texture of the song.

Near the end of the sequence, two of the original tracks are remixed by two different mixers. The recast of “Dio Pann” with its smooth, cool groove underpinning Schwarz-Bart’s catchy theme and the vintage Moog synth solo make this the more successful of the pair.

Jacques Schwrz-Bart’s Abyss successfully melds modern jazz and soul shapes with the riveting rhythms and spiritual character of the Caribbean and Africa. That’s a very similar recipe that we’ve seen in other ObliqSound releases, and this one gets it done with even less reliance on the latest trends in recording and instrumentation than most of his new labelmates. That might make Abyss the more enjoyable listen in the long run. The best part about that is that it’s an enjoyable listen from the start, too.

Abyss went on sale in America November 24.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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