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Jacques Schwarz-Bart: Hazzan (Enja/Yellowbird)

A review of the saxophonist's album contemporizing traditional Jewish liturgical melodies

Hazzan by Jacques Schwarz Bart
Cover of Hazzan by Jacques Schwarz Bart

The world’s religions have long provided jazz musicians with melodies to explore, and while Judaism has never been as pervasive an influence as Christian gospel music, it has nonetheless turned up in jazz over the years. The Guadeloupe-born tenor and alto saxophonist Jacques Schwarz-Bart dives into that canon for his latest—the title, Hazzan, is synonymous with cantor—contemporizing 10 mostly traditional Jewish liturgical melodies.

Some of these songs, even in their reimagined form, will be instantly familiar to anyone who’s ever set foot inside a synagogue, others less so. Along with pianist Grégory Privat, bassist Stéphane Kerecki, drummer Arnaud Dolmen, and guests David Linz (vocals) and Darren Barrett (trumpet), Schwarz-Bart approaches these tunes with reverence but also a determined willingness to use them as springboards.

Two of the most ubiquitous and ebullient themes in the Jewish songbook, “Adon Olam” and “Daienu,” are representative of the leaps taken by Schwarz-Bart and crew: the former is stripped bare to its melodic essence; Schwarz-Bart blows freely, his accompaniment reduced primarily to Dolmen’s loose-limbed, forward-thrusting drums; the latter, from which fewer liberties are taken, swings mightily when Privat gets his solo turn.

Although solemnity may have guided the creation of these songs, and is still called for within the context of Shabbos services, Schwarz-Bart and his group are less concerned with the music’s origins than the possibilities that reside within them. “Avinu Malkena,” although feathery light and whispery soft, exudes a boldness as it builds toward its denouement, and the opening “Shabbat Menuka Hi,” with its handclaps and chanting adding rhythmic thrust to the danceable party beat the quartet is busy turning out, is nothing if not funky.

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Originally Published