Talking music with veteran alto saxophonist Gary Bartz is always a lighthearted and relaxed experience. He’s as generous with his considerable memories of the jazz scene-including stories of playing in bands led by Miles Davis, Max Roach and others-as he is with personal insights into the playing of the music itself, as a sideman or bandleader.
In the spring and summer of last year, Bartz brought his fluid, intelligent style to a wide range of high-profile appearances. In New York he performed with McCoy Tyner, Michael Henderson, the soul-jazz outfit Greyboy Allstars and Sax Appeal featuring Jimmy Heath, Donald Harrison and Javon Jackson. In various cities, he was the featured artist in tributes to Miles Davis (Chicago), Donald Byrd (San Francisco, with Nicholas Payton) and Jackie McLean (Hartford, Conn.). In Europe he toured supporting Tyner and as a leader with a local rhythm section in Italy and with his own quartet in Israel. A busy fall and winter schedule followed in the same vein, and he has plans to release the second volume of his recent Coltrane Rules project on his own label, OYO Recordings, soon.
Bartz himself suggested participating in a Before & After, and we were pleased to accommodate him. When Bartz, 73, listens to music, his focus tends toward the performance-the soloist’s approach and energy, the interaction between players-more than questions of identity or style. This interaction took place in a classroom at New York University’s jazz facility in front of a live audience.
1. Johnny Hodges & Oliver Nelson
“Yearning” (from 3 Shades of Blue, Flying Dutchman). Hodges, alto saxophone; Nelson, arrangements, conductor; Danny Bank, Frank Wess, Jerome Richardson, Jerry Dodgion, Joe Farrell, Bob Ashton, saxophones; Ernie Royal, Snooky Young, Randy Brecker, Marvin Stamm, trumpets; Al Grey, Garnett Brown, Quentin Jackson, Thomas Mitchell, trombones; David Spinozza, guitar; Hank Jones, piano; Ron Carter, bass; Grady Tate, drums. Recorded in 1970.
BEFORE: Hmmm. At first, the arrangement sounded like the Count Basie band, but then I heard Johnny Hodges, so that threw me off. I know it’s a Johnny Hodges record but not with the Duke Ellington band. I recognize the tune but I don’t think I ever knew the name of it-some kind of blues.
AFTER: Oh, right, that’s [also on Nelson’s] The Blues and the Abstract Truth. So Oliver did the arrangement. Nice. I knew it was Hodges in about three or four bars. Nobody plays like that. It’s hard to play like that, first of all, because he was lead alto, and when it started you could hear him in the harmony lines even before the solo. I remember when I realized that first alto is really the lead in contemporary big bands, like the violin is usually the lead in an orchestra. That first alto can be a very hard chair to fill, and Hodges not only did that well, but soloed too. He really could do both.
I first met Hodges in the early ’50s when he came to Club Tijuana in Baltimore. That was right around the corner from where I grew up. Everybody used to come through there. I actually heard Charlie Parker on one of his last weeklong engagements. I couldn’t get in but I heard him from outside. I would try and meet the guys when they’d come out. I remember I was surprised when I met Hodges because we were about the same size. He looked at me and said, “What can I do for you, young man?” I told him I played alto saxophone. He was very gracious.
Hodges died a few weeks after doing the sessions for this album in 1970.
The last time I saw him was just two days before he passed, when I was in a Boston hotel with Miles at the same time that the Duke Ellington Orchestra was checking in. He promised me that he would set me up to get a clarinet endorsement from Leblanc. I had a chance to let him know how much I loved him. I’m really glad I did that, because you never know.
2. Roy Haynes
“Segment” (from Whereas, Dreyfus Jazz). Haynes, drums; Jaleel Shaw, alto saxophone; Robert Rodriguez, piano; John Sullivan, bass. Recorded in 2006.
BEFORE: This one’s tricky. A lot of people come to mind-Lee Konitz, Eric Dolphy. I think it’s an older musician but not really old, whatever that means. Or it could be an older musician with younger ideas. The things he was playing and a lot of his ideas seemed grounded in the history of the music. Near the end I was thinking it was like early Dolphy because he was jumping octaves like Eric did, and I heard some Ornette in there too. I know this song. I’ve never played it but the bridge is definitely from “A Night in Tunisia.” That gets used a lot, like when players can’t figure out a B section we’ll say, “Let’s use the ‘Night in Tunisia’ bridge.”
AFTER: It’s a surprise this is from 2006. I wasn’t paying attention to the drummer, although I should have been. I actually have that ability to focus on one player when I’m playing in a band, and I was doing that. Sometimes I’ll do what I heard Monk told [drummer] Ben Riley one time: “If you’re not understanding a song, look at the musicians and figure out who’s enjoying the song the most and follow him.” Sonny [Rollins] does the same thing-we’ve talked about that. Not that I needed to do that with this performance; that’s just how I’ll listen sometimes.
So that’s Jaleel? He sounds wonderful. Maybe it was the recording, because I do know his sound but I didn’t recognize it. I’ve heard him live and we’ve talked. He lives in Philly, which is not far from me. I think his sound’s a little brighter and firmer than what I was hearing, and definitely, definitely rooted in the tradition. I could hear it was a Charlie Parker kind of tune.
3. Byard Lancaster
“Over the Rainbow” (from It’s Not Up to Us, Vortex). Lancaster, alto saxophone; Jerome Hunter, bass; Eric Gravatt, drums. Recorded in 1966.
BEFORE: I wonder if Judy Garland would like that [laughs]. I liked it. I can’t put my finger on who it is. He was doing things that reminded me of Joseph Jarman or Roscoe Mitchell. It could be today, so Oliver Lake also comes to mind. You know, it’s really hard to play saxophone by yourself. He did have a rhythm section but he took a lot of it alone-doing some things with his sound, like using the vibrato way up high, which almost reminded me of the violin.
The first time I heard this kind of playing was when Ornette Coleman came to town [in 1959], playing at the old Five Spot, and everybody was coming in to see what this new young guy was doing-Miles, Dizzy. In fact, everybody wanted to sit in with him to see what it felt like, you know, to play with him; I sat in with him, all the guys came down and sat in with him. Pretty soon that became an expression: “Well, you’re no Ornette Coleman.” [<>laughs] To me, Ornette is the one alto player who really understood Charlie Parker. He said, “Why am I going to play like Charlie Parker? Nobody’s gonna be able to do that.” And, consequently, he played like Ornette, and nobody’s going be able to do that either.
AFTER: Oh, Byard! Wow, 1966? That makes sense. We played together, mostly in Philly, where he’s from. The last time was a tribute to McCoy Tyner that [violinist] John Blake put together. Byard came and played a few numbers with us. Great player-very individual style. I don’t think he gets mentioned enough. I think part of the reason is because Byard never made that jump to New York like other Philly musicians did. When I started going out on the road I learned that every city has musicians who were really great-like Von Freeman in Chicago. You don’t necessarily have to come to New York, but it is helpful to do it so you can gauge your own abilities. It’s like playing in the minor leagues but when you come to New York it’s the major league.
4. Louis Jordan & His Tympany Five
“Psycho Loco” (from Let the Good Times Roll: The Complete Decca Recordings, Bear Family). Jordan, alto saxophone; Aaron Izenhall, trumpet; Josh Jackson, tenor saxophone; James “Ham” Jackson, guitar; Bill Doggett, piano; Bill Hadnott, bass; Joe Morris, drums. Recorded in 1949.
BEFORE: [laughs immediately] I know you’re going to play the whole thing through because this must be a 78. [listens to entire track] The first person that came to mind was Earl Bostic, and I kept hearing him-and there were no vocals. But it could be Louis Jordan. Bostic had the same kind of growl [as Jordan] but his sound was a little bigger, more precise too-they called him Professor. Jordan didn’t play like that all the time, but I would say that was Louis Jordan.
AFTER: So Bill Doggett wrote that with him. Louis Jordan was one of my early heroes. He was a big star when I was growing up, one of the biggest black entertainers in those days. He made movies and my uncle had a lot of his records so I’d hear them a lot. His songs had humor in them, and man, he could play and that band could swing. As a matter of fact, I saw him a couple of times when my father took me to see him at the Royal Theatre [in Baltimore]. He had a revue-dancing girls, opening acts, everything. Then he’d come out and play his hits-“Beware, Brother, Beware,” “Saturday Night Fish Fry,” “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens,” “Five Guys Named Moe.”
Funny thing is, Jordan piqued my curiosity about the alto because I liked his sound. But when I heard Charlie Parker I said, “That’s the way it’s supposed to sound, more like that.” So I learned that early on, that the alto can do many different things-like Johnny Hodges, Louis Jordan and on and on.
5. John Abercrombie & Greg Osby
“Improvisation #5” (from DUOS: The Jazz Sessions, Original Spin). Abercrombie, guitar; Osby, alto saxophone. Recorded in 2011.
BEFORE: Does anybody know who this is? No? Rudresh [Mahanthappa] came to mind because he plays like that-those time signatures and those kinds of runs. But then I thought he’d do more runs and he’s really clean. It’s a good piece of music, but if you’re trying to say, “This is jazz,” to me, it needs to swing. It was improvised but even still. I’m not saying that this player can’t swing, I’m saying I don’t think he was swinging on this track. But maybe that was his swing-people do have different swings.
To me, swing is pulse. It should always be trying to reach a peak, trying to get higher, not go, “OK, we’re swinging. Let’s stop now.” This was more stop-and-go, more abstract, and there’s a place for that. I’m not gonna say where that place is. [laughter] No, I’m just kidding. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I think music should have a flow. But I thought they worked well together-you could hear they were listening to each other. I liked that.
AFTER: This was just off-the-cuff? For me, improvisation means unrehearsed, unprepared, rather than a composition. But I think it’s a misnomer here because a lot of musicians think they are improvising when they are actually composing. When you listen to Lester Young or Charlie Parker or Miles playing a solo, they are actually composing. They might not make the decision until the last second, but it’s not off the top of their head. They’re bringing years of study and experience to that moment-learning songs, different music, which notes to play, everything.