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Antonio Hart: Community Music

Antonio Hart
Antonio Hart

After an exhausting three-week European tour with bassist and composer Dave Holland’s octet, Antonio Hart is back at home, at least for a New York minute.

As Hart eats breakfast at Mike’s, a small, overcrowded coffeehouse on the corner of Hall and Dekalb in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, just walking distance from his home, Hart gives an emphatic “totally” when asked if he’s jet-lagged.

He has little time to rest today, though; later this afternoon he has to go up to Manhattan’s Upper West Side and play with trumpeter Dave Douglas at “Wall-to-Wall Miles Davis,” Symphony Space’s 12-hour tribute to the Prince of Darkness. But for now, the alto saxophonist, composer and recent Queens College visiting artist-professor is reveling in his artsy neighborhood as various friends come up to greet him and catch up on what he’s been doing.

It seems as though Hart went underground after his scintillating 1997 Grammy-nominated album Here I Stand (Impulse!) and, in a sense, he did. “[I’ve been] hanging out and trying to be inspired by other things-anything that breathes life; people and different cultures and the way they approached music. I wanted to be influenced by just about anything that wasn’t all about going to jazz clubs. That gets boring after a while, even though I had to do that to survive.

“I’ve been doing a lot of martial arts lately,” Hart continues. “I’ve been reading a lot of books like Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi. I’m doing anything that’s going to better my mind. I try to find a balance, because I find that, out here, it’s hard to be balanced when there are so many different kinds of energy coming at you at the same time. So you got to find a way to coexist in this thing without being thrown off your path.

“That’s part of the reason why I stopped recording and pulled myself away from the scene, because I felt unbalanced. I couldn’t deal with people’s attitudes or their approaches to music. I couldn’t deal with my own approach to music. The stuff that I was creating, I was kind of bored with it. I thought I needed to study, and take some time off and relax, then start all over again. After I left Impulse! I didn’t want to just sign on the dotted line where they just want me to be this one-dimensional artist, because that’s not who I am. So I took some time off, started traveling and going to different places and listened to different kinds of musics.”

Hart’s four-year sabbatical from recording as a leader has certainly paid off as evident from his exuberant new CD, Ama Tu Sonrisa (Enja). The album is an ambitious and adventuresome reconciliation of Afro-Cuban, Middle Eastern, and African music with post-Motown bop and funk, but it’s also Hart’s most emotionally intimate and comfortable-sounding album yet.

“Everything before was more anal,” reflects Hart on his earlier albums. “Everything had to be a particular way. I was still straddling the fence, trying to play not so much traditional jazz, but still sticking along those lines. I wasn’t experimenting with it as much, and going as far as I could. That’s when I hit that brick wall. When you’re touring all the time, you don’t get a chance to practice; you don’t get a chance to think. When you’re traveling from hotel to hotel, back and forth, from here to there, you don’t get a chance to really focus. It was time for me to really focus and travel around the world, without having to play. I was traveling to actually feel the place and feel what’s going on there, and try to internalize some of those things.”

Ama Tu Sonrisa sounds like a collection of musical postcards from Hart’s visits around the world. Complemented by an impressive lineup that includes vibraphonist Steve Nelson, pianist Kevin Hays, drummers Camille Gainer and Nasheet Waits, bassist Richie Goods and percussionists Renato Thoms, Rolando Morales and Kahlil Kwame-Bell, Hart positions himself at the center of a multi-culti community, where once-conjoined continents drift back together. Hart’s intriguing “Distant Cousins” exemplifies this global unification: first, his soprano-saxophone playing wafts over a hypnotic Middle Eastern groove, then his serpentine melody spirals up and down a festive Latin groove.

“Every time I go around the world, I find something that links to Africa,” Hart says. “When I went to Israel, I bought a lot of music. I was also checking out a lot of African music and klezmer and Arabic music. I found a lot of rhythms sounded similar to ones in Africa. I wanted to show that even though Africa is the home base and that we might be in the United States or Dominican Republic, we are still connected. We are all family still. It’s a combination of the Afro-Cuban and the feeling of being in the Sahara.”

Other rhythmic experiments are the joyous opening track, “For Amadou,” that finds Hart’s citrus-toned alto dancing gleefully over the irrepressibly funky djembe and conga polyrhythms; the picturesque “Forward Motion,” where Hart and company craft an intoxicating groove that sounds both Brazilian and M-BASE-ed; and the celebratory “El Professor,” which features the sisterly vocal choruses of Lenora Helm and Claudia Acuña.

Throughout the radiant Ama Tu Sonrisa, Hart keenly balances complex polyrhythms and detailed textures with simpatico, emotionally poignant lyricism in his own playing. He remains an exhilarating improviser, but now Hart’s solos aren’t nearly as forceful, prolix and explicitly virtuosic as they were before. His deft technique sounds like a means to an end as opposed to being the goal. “My approach to improvisation is becoming more internal,” says Hart. “Before, I was really trying to learn how to get inside chord changes, how to connect lines-that’s a part of it still-but now it’s more about communication. It’s about how I can communicate with the band, and let them know what I’m trying to say.”

If Hart’s eclectic new album sounds both witty yet gracefully natural, his demeanor suggests that as well. He’s definitely comfortable in his own skin. Now donning a mane of dreadlocks, he exudes a relaxed bohemian vibe that’s glowing but never brashly glaring. He still looks professorial as ever, thanks to his signature highly fashionable eyewear; and when it’s time to really dress up, Hart can easily pass as a Wall Street broker. But on this dreary late March Saturday morning, Hart’s casual dress is more inviting than imposing. He can be understandably guarded and matter-of-fact when discussing the nastiness of the music industry. In turn, he can be overflowing with passion and knowledge when talking about the innovations of some of his musical heroes like Cannonball Adderley, Grover Washington Jr., Charlie Parker, Gary Bartz and Jimmy Heath.

Musicians who have worked with Hart are equally passionate about his playing.

“His spirit has an intensity that’s very focused,” comments Dave Holland on Hart. “He has a great spirit in his playing; it’s also reflective in his personality. He gets a wonderful sound, which is one of the first things that you notice about a player. He has a lot of individuality.”

Hart and Holland have been working on and off for about two years. Hart started working with Holland’s quintet; last year he performed with Holland’s 13-piece big band, which debuted at Montreal as a part of their Invitation series. He’ll be featured on Holland’s upcoming big-band release, What Goes Around, scheduled for late spring 2002.

“His music is honest,” says Hart of Holland. “It has a definite approach and focus. It has freedom and creativity. He’s not trying to impress anybody with any compositional techniques; he’s just writing his music. And then the people he chooses to play his music are a thrill, too-Steve Nelson, Billy Kilson, Robin Eubanks, Chris Potter-to be around those creative musicians is inspiring.”

For much of the past decade, Hart has established himself as a top-notch alto saxophonist. He grew up in Baltimore, Md., and attended Baltimore School for the Performing Arts. Hart continued his music education at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, where he studied with Billy Pierce, Andy McGhee and Joe Viola. It was there that he met trumpeter Roy Hargrove, with whom he later spent three years on the road. Hart returned the favor and featured Hargrove on his 1991 debut, For the First Time (Novus).

Traveling on the road with Hargrove and the rest of the young lions and mapping out his own solo career didn’t deter Hart from gaining his bachelor’s in music education. He continued his formal education at Queens College, where he studied with Jimmy Heath and Donald Byrd, and earned his master’s degree. Now closing the collegiate circle, Hart teaches graduate saxophone students the art of improvisation at Queens College. One of the lessons he imparts to his students is the necessity of feeling the music; and when he notices a barrier between the music and musician, he advises the students to go out dancing.

“I think it’s very important,” claims Hart. “I think that if you’re going to be a musician, you should be able to dance, so you can actually feel the music move around you. When I started teaching at Queens College, I noticed that a lot of students could play fast, but their improvisations didn’t move. I told them all to go out dancing, so they could learn how to feel music. Once they did that, they did much better.”

Feeling is something that Ama Tu Sonrisa emits in abundance. Unlike many other world-beat-informed jazz records, Hart’s music doesn’t sound as if he’s trying to do others’ cultures; it sounds as if he’s immersed himself in their cultures and subsequently assimilated them into his own aesthetic. His recent visit to Cuba had a profound effect on the infectiousness of his rhythms and the unhinged emotional sweep of his playing.

“Going over to Cuba and hanging out with the musicians, I just felt like there was something very sincere, something that was still grass roots and something that was still connected to the area that they were living in,” reflects Hart. “That’s why I gravitated to it. The music is African, so naturally I’m going to be intrigued by it. The musicians played their soul and they gave up what they were really feeling to the audience. And every time they performed, they performed like it was the last time. When I go out to a lot of jazz concerts, a lot of musicians sound like they are just going through the motions to get paid. And I understand that economically, but the music suffers. You hear that in the music. It’s about me, me, me; instead of being like we are trying to be together with this music.”

Artistic communion is paramount in Hart’s musical philosophy. It’s a quality that manifests itself often in his personal life as well as professionally as he tries to establish family bonds with his ensembles. “When I was on the road with Dave Holland’s octet for three-and-a-half weeks, I was with them more than I’m with my blood family. It’s got to be a feeling of being with a family to just exist. The more that you feel that these are your brothers, the more that you can play together musically and just hang out,” says Hart.

“I hung out with Chris Potter and I never really knew Chris Potter. We ate dinner together, we ate lunch and just hung out. I made a really good bond with him; and it’s the same thing with Robin Eubanks and Dave. They are like extended family. I want to take those kinds of experiences and pass them on to my band and to some of the younger musicians. We got to get back to that-loving and respecting each other, because nobody is doing anything that special, where they need to be out there all by themselves. It’s a community.”


Yanagisawa alto and soprano saxophones; Haynes flute; Vandoren Java #3 reeds for alto and Vandoren Traditional 21/2 for soprano.

Listening Pleasures

Miles Davis: The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel (Columbia)

Bob Marley: Natural Mystic (Island)

Buckshot LeFonque: Music Evolution (Columbia)

Originally Published