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Jacques Schwarz-Bart Continues His Guadeloupean Odyssey

The saxophonist returns to Ithaca with his latest release

Jacques Schwarz-Bart
Jacques Schwarz-Bart

“Nobody can do this but you.” Those were the words of encouragement received by Jacques Schwarz-Bart when he first brought his compositions mixing jazz and Gwoka music to a Berklee professor in the early ’90s. The instructor meant to light a fire under the saxophonist, but he was also merely stating the facts. Born and raised in Guadeloupe, Schwarz-Bart became interested in his country’s native music at a young age, swept up by the drum-and-voice conversations it offered. And in a career that has seen him move between jazz with Jean Michel-Pilc and Ari Hoenig and neo-soul with Erykah Badu and D’Angelo, Schwarz-Bart has returned to Gwoka repeatedly.

His initial attempt at fusing jazz and Gwoka in the studio was 2006’s Soné Ka-La, the title of which translates to “let the drums resound.” And he returned to the format for Soné Ka-La 2: Odyssey, released in April. Featuring two drummers—Arnaud Dolmen on kit and Sonny Troupé on ka drum—plus the Guadeloupean vocalist Malika Tirolien mirroring Schwarz-Bart’s lines, Soné Ka-La 2 is a vibrant, uplifting mix of two of the saxophonist’s many identities. Divisions only exist if you let them.

The inspiration for this sequel came not only from Schwarz-Bart’s heritage, but from history and literature. The saxophonist was thinking about the Middle Passage, which brought slaves from Africa to the Americas, and Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey. Schwarz-Bart has been on his own journey, but it always comes back to Gwoka.

“I envisioned a different set of compositions [from the first Soné Ka-La album] reflecting something a little more celebratory,” explains Schwarz-Bart, who lives in Boston and is now a Berklee professor himself. “Something that would be at the same time more complex by certain aspects, but more direct by others. And I fell in love with the idea of having all the melodies carried both by the saxophone and the voice. So that’s when I found my way back to Ithaca.”

All of the compositions on Soné Ka-La 2 are by Schwarz-Bart, but the leader’s charts are hardly written in stone. The album’s percussionists, for instance, are given space to be themselves inside of his larger vision.

“Despite the rhythmic writing and the different ideas given by Jacques, he leaves us, Arnaud Dolmen and I, the possibility of creating, proposing, and writing our own part in order to complement each other well,” Troupé writes in an email. “And also get the good form, which works in this fusion when we think it was necessary.”

Gwoka and jazz are the focuses of the album, but there are other elements at play too. “Ami Bongo” is influenced by Afrobeat, and “New Padjanbel” includes a soaring, D’Angelo-esque R&B groove, something Schwarz-Bart learned from working with the singer in the early 2000s.

“That feel of being able to play way in the back of the beat while generating forward motion is something that D’Angelo perfected to a higher art form,” Schwarz-Bart says. “Being with him for several years, I admired many of his musical qualities, but this is the one thing that intrigued me the most when I started playing with him.”

For Schwarz-Bart, Gwoka is more than just the sound of his roots; encountering it for the first time as a child pulled the curtain, so to speak. His mission was revealed.

“This was an epiphany for me, because I just opened a door into a different realm,” Schwarz-Bart recalls. “A different reality. The reality of music. It’s a language that most people don’t speak. Most people love music, but most people don’t speak music. And if you realize that that language is there, and that it’s your calling somehow, then it changes your perspective on life.”

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