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Gary Bartz turned 80 over the summer, and the man with a fair claim to the title of greatest living alto saxophonist can’t keep the kids away.
As millennial musicians discover the voluptuous textures and consciousness-expanding vibes of the 1960s and 1970s spiritual jazz recordings, he’s being sought out as a visionary who was in the thick of the cosmic action. With his silver mane of hair flowing below his trademark fedora, the Emeryville resident is a lion in winter eager to mix it up with the bright young cubs.
Released in March, his latest album “Gary Bartz and Maisha” pairs him with one of the leading bands on London’s roiling spiritual jazz scene. Led by drummer Jake Long, the British sextet delves into pieces from Bartz’s seminal 1970s NTU Troop recordings, like “Uhuru Sasa” and “Dr. Follow’s Dance.” For Bartz, it was like getting reacquainted with a younger version of himself.
“Some of those songs we played I had never done live,” said Bartz, who will play a rare Bay Area date Sunday afternoon, livestreamed from Half Moon Bay’s Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society. “I had to relearn them, and I really enjoyed it. A student at Oberlin just did a recital doing one of those songs. The music is still alive.”
He’s also part of an all-star band joining iconic East Bay jazz/blues vocalist Faye Carol at Freight & Salvage on Sunday, Dec. 6, a combo that also features bassist Jeff Chambers, pianist Joe Warner, and drummer Karriem Riggins. The performance premieres Carol’s new suite “Sounds of Freedom,” which draws inspiration from the civil rights struggle, from her involvement with the Black Panthers through Black Lives Matter, while also exploring the inner quest for freedom of expression and identity.
Given Bartz’s stature, his arrival in the East Bay was a relatively quiet affair. Settling in Emeryville about three years ago to be closer to family, he’s kept a low profile on the local scene with nary a gig at the SFJAZZ Center or Yoshi’s. But back in 2012 he brought an R&B-steeped project to Yoshi’s San Francisco with Aloe Blacc and Bilal, and returned the following year with a tribute to trumpeter Donald Byrd’s Blackbyrds featuring Kevin Toney, the popular jazz/funk combo’s original pianist, and New Orleans trumpet star Nicholas Payton.
His last performances here were in the summer of 2017 as part of a multi-day celebration at Santa Cruz’s Kuumbwa Jazz Center and Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society marking the 45th anniversary of Keystone Korner (1972-83), the iconic North Beach jazz club Bartz played with piano great McCoy Tyner. Returning to Bach on Sunday, Bartz joins forces with a conspicuously young rhythm section organized by Sacramento drummer Jacob Swedlow, a recent graduate of Oberlin Conservatory.
Swedlow studied with drummer Billy Hart, who recommended him to Bartz, a fellow professor at Oberlin. For the piano chair Swedlow recruited his Sacramento buddy Sterling Cozza, a senior at the Eastman School of Music, and Davis-reared bassist Nico Martinez, who’s studying in the University of the Pacific’s jazz program.
A passionate educator dedicated to helping musicians find their own voice, Bartz wasn’t always a musical seeker. The Baltimore native moved to New York City to study at Juilliard in 1958 and absorbed a lifetime of experience before he released his first album under his own name a decade later. He gained invaluable playing with legendary innovators such as Charles Mingus and Max Roach, but he always kept his ears open and experienced a mind-expanding epiphany listening to tenor sax titan Sonny Rollins at the Village Vanguard.
“Initially when I got to New York all I wanted was to play some bebop, but I was at the Vanguard one night listening to Sonny and he was trading eights with Elvin Jones,” Bartz recalled, referring to a rapid-fire exchange of impromptu eight-bar phrases.
“At the time there was this novelty tune that was all over the radio, ‘The Purple People Eater,’ and Sonny played that in one of his eights. That opened my eyes and ears! They teach music backwards. Our art form is all in the ears. You listen to everything.”
His bright, slippery tone and wide ranging curiosity started attracting attention in New York City, but he had an ace up his sleeve. His father was head waiter in a dining car on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad when A. Philip Randolph’s Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union was one of the most respected and progressive forces in the Black community. He was still working the B&O when he bought a Baltimore jazz spot called the North End Lounge.
“I was actually living in New York City when he bought the club in 1960,” Bartz said. “I would commute down to Baltimore on the weekends and that’s where I met Cannonball Adderley and Max Roach. Art Blakey was playing there when my dad found out that his saxophonist John Gilmore was leaving, and he called to let me know a spot might open up in the Jazz Messengers.”
Always on the lookout for exceptional young talent, Blakey was evidently impressed when Bartz sat in with the band. A week later the saxophonist got the call that he’d landed the plum gig, and he ended up making his recording debut on the 1965 album “Soul Finger,” which featured trumpeters Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard on their last Jazz Messengers dates.
Knowing that he had to record an album of his own in order to get higher profile gigs as a bandleader, Bartz made a demo tape and started cold-calling record labels listed in the Yellow Pages. He reached a few willing to take a listen, but found a truly receptive ear when he connected with Orrin Keepnews. As a producer he’d turned Riverside Records into an indie rival to the celebrated Blue Note label, with dozens of era-defining albums by artists such as Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Wes Montgomery, Cannonball Adderley, and Jimmy Heath.
Riverside had recently folded, and Keepnews was already making plans for his next move. He told Bartz that he was working on launching a new label and that “if I haven’t found a label in the next year I should give him a call, he’s interested,” Bartz said. “He said, ‘I never listen to demos and for some reason I listened to yours and I loved it.’”
Keepnews was as good as his word, making Bartz the first young artist signed to his new label Milestone. The saxophonist recorded five albums for Keepnews, starting with 1967’s Libra, a quintet session featuring drummer Billy Higgins, bassist Richard Davis, pianist Albert Dailey, and trumpeter Jimmy Owens. With five Bartz originals, Jerome Kern’s rarely played “Cabin in the Sky,” and the spiritual “Deep River,” the album introduced an artist inspired by a wide spectrum of African American musical idioms.
The music “runs the gamut from freedom to soul,” Keepnews wrote in the liner notes, capturing the protean nature of Bartz’s vision. “And it covers that broad a range, not in order to prove any point, but strictly because these are ways in which this young altoist can and does compose and play.”
His most profound relationship with a bandleader kept him in the orbit of pianist/composer McCoy Tyner for half a century, starting with a series of classic Blue Note albums like 1968’s “Expansions” and 1970’s “Extensions.” When Tyner signed with Keepnews at Milestone, Bartz contributed to several sessions, most memorably 1974’s “Sama Layuca.” And when Tyner started recording prolifically for the Telarc record label in the late ’90s Bartz was often in the mix (including at the pianist’s annual two-week engagements at Yoshi’s).
“I loved working with McCoy,” Bartz said. “That was John Coltrane’s piano player. They pioneered a way of approaching music that had not been heard before. And that helped me understand how to play, how to go that direction.”
His roots in the church and blues provided the power to soar in just about any setting. When Miles Davis needed a horn player to cut through the increasingly dense electric textures following the seminal jazz/rock fusion albums “Bitches Brew” and “Jack Johnson,” he hired Bartz, who adds searing intensity on alto and soprano sax to “Live-Evil” (a double album recorded mostly at The Cellar Door in Washington D.C., a run documented on the 2005 six-disc box set “The Cellar Door Sessions 1970”).
His own music kept expanding. Addressing explicitly political and spiritual themes, he brought vocalist and pianist Andy Bey into his NTU Troop ensemble, which recorded a series of influential albums like 1971’s “Harlem Bush Music – Uhuru” on Milestone and 1972’s “Follow the Medicine Man.” on Prestige. Still guided by that Vanguard epiphany, he soaked up sounds from everywhere, kicking off the 1972 Prestige album “Juju Street Songs” with “I Wanna Be Where You Are,” which was a hit for Michael Jackson the same year.
In 1977 he collaborated with the Mizell Brothers on a signature jazz/funk Blue Note project, “Music Is My Sanctuary.” The same year he collaborated with gospel innovator Rance Allen (who died last week) on the album “Say My Friend” and contributed to soul singer Phyllis Hyman’s eponymous debut for Buddah Records.
Like Max Roach before him and current-day multi-instrumentalist Nicholas Payton, Bartz rejects the term “jazz” as a musical pigeonhole. “It’s a negative word, a demeaning word,” he said. “I consider myself a musician. I play music. I don‘t play one type. I’m not in a box. That’d be boring to me. That’s the way I teach too. I don’t know what jazz is.”
Whatever you want to call his music, Bartz isn’t thinking about putting down his horn. Patiently biding his time until the pandemic passes, he keeps writing new music and recasting old tunes for fresh settings.
“I really want to get back in the studio,” he said. “I’ve got things ready. I’m backed up now. I’m not slowing down. I come from the time period when you’d sign a deal and you’d be expected to make two records a year at least. Once that stopped, I didn’t stop. I’m going and going.”