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Throughout his career, saxophonist Jacques Schwarz-Bart has made music sparked by his interest in various cultures, as evidenced by his Africa-inspired Gwoka Jazz Project; his voodoo-centric Jazz Racine Haiti album; and the Creole Spirits Project, a celebration of Haitian and Cuban mysticism. Hazzan, which draws from Jewish liturgical music — and his own ethnic background — may be his most ambitious undertaking yet. But fears that Schwarz-Bart, who sidelines as an associate professor at the Berklee College of Music, might turn Hazzan (the term references a cantor) into an academic exercise are dispelled in the recording’s initial 10 seconds and all those that follow.
That first track, “Shabbat Menuka Hi,” is traditional, like nearly all the selections, but Schwarz-Bart’s interpretation sounds thoroughly contemporary. The proceedings begin with a sprightly pattern from bassist Stéphane Kerecki, the sharp crack of Arnaud Dolmen’s drums and a groove courtesy of pianist Grégory Privat that creates a foundation for ecstatic exhortations by vocalist David Linx. Only then does Schwarz-Bart enter, echoing Linx’s line before exploring the soundscape on his own, his extended wails directed toward a higher power.
Subsequent numbers use this template to place ancient works in a modern context. On “Mi Shebeirach,” a prayer for healing, Schwarz-Bart transforms the reverent melody by way of fluid extrapolations that allow it to breathe. “Oseh Shalom” is moody, dark and sinuous; “Daienu” swings hard without losing focus; and “Avinu Malkenu” begins with Schwarz-Bart alone and impassioned before evolving into a ballad of breathtaking delicacy.
Of the offerings here, “Ahot Ketana” is the one that announces its influences most overtly. At its center is a poem delivered by Linx, who talks about “looking deep inside — then searching even deeper.” That’s a neat summation of Hazzan, as well as Schwarz-Bart’s approach to his art.— Michael Roberts