Local jazz lovers who attend any of Antonio Hart’s upcoming gigs will get something of a blast from the past but with decidedly contemporary, forward-looking intent.
The 48-year-old New York resident alto saxophonist is next up in the Hot Jazz series, with six shows lined up for January 3 to 7 at venues in Herzliya, Modi’in, Tel Aviv and Haifa. For the occasion, Hart will be joined by compatriot trumpeter Wayne Tucker, with the Israeli rhythm section comprising pianist Hila Kulik, bassist Tamir Shmerling and drummer Shai Zelman.
Hart is a jazzman with a substantial musical upbringing. He set out on his path to creative enlightenment on the classical side of the tracks which, he says, has stood him in sturdy stead over the past three plus decades.
“It gives me a foundation and how to have a good foundation on the instrument,” Hart observes. ”It gave me a technical foundation.”
But it is not just about ensuring that all the sonic nuts and bolts are in the right place.
“It gave me an appreciation for music and taught me how to look at music, how to shape music and play melody,” he says.
It was very much about getting the grammar and syntax of the idiom down pat before chancing his arm in less structured areas of instrumental proficiency.
“In European classical music, all the dynamics, the articulation, the phrasing, from the beginning to the end, is written out. Most jazz composers are not so specific [about the dynamics of the piece in question], although some are. But once you know how to look at melody, you can look at the shape, the arc of the melody, and you can see where the phrase begins and ends, and you can interpret how long or short the notes should be,” he explains.
It is a perception Hart has endeavored to convey to his own charges over the years.
“I try to give that to a lot of my students, too,” Hart continues, “for them to study that way so that once we transfer from the Euro classical music to our American music, we can play a little more intelligently than before.”
Hart got the yen for music, and specifically for the sax, when he was very young.
“My earliest recollection [of musical instrumentation] was when I was in grade school. There was a band playing in my school, and I saw this guy with all these instruments in front of him. He may have had three or four saxophones. I’m assuming that he had an alto, tenor and a soprano, maybe a clarinet too,” he recounts.
It was love at first sight and sound.
“He played this thing, and I thought, ‘I want to play that.’ I had no clue what it was called, but I knew that it was something I wanted to play,” he says.
Hart was truly bitten, but he still had to bide his time before he could wrap his chops around a saxophone mouthpiece. It wasn’t until a year later, when he had progressed to junior high school, that he put could his mouth where his newfound love was.
“Music was kind of my savior at the school. It was the only thing I wanted to do there,” he recalls.
The spark had been lit, but it took yet another while until the youngsters’ musical zest could burst into flame.
“It didn’t really start until I went to a performing arts high school,” the reedman notes. “We got training on a high level from the age of 14. And we had visual arts, we had dance and we had theater. We were going to operas and the ballet and to art exhibits. So we were totally exposed to art.”
The teenager was also being pushed to up his instrumental technique ante.
“By the time I graduated, I had good command of the horn,” he says.
Soon after that, Hart felt compelled to begin bending the borders of his musical comfort zone.
“I just knew I didn’t want a career playing European classical music,” he states. “I started listening to a jazz radio station. We have a historical black college in Baltimore called Morgan State University, and there’s another big one in Washington [DC] called Howard University, and they radio stations on the campus. So I started listening to this music called jazz on those stations,” he says.
The die was cast, and Hart soon applied to Berklee College of Music in Boston, one of the world’s preeminent institutions of jazz education. Despite auditioning with a classical piece, because that was basically what he knew at the time, he was accepted.
Over the years, Hart has had the privilege of studying and mixing it with some of the iconic players of earlier generations, such as saxophonist Jimmy Heath, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and bebop pioneer drummer Max Roach.
While feeling blessed by his connection with a previous generation or two of jazz greats, Hart says he has never been interested in sticking to tried and tested territory and says that goes for classical leanings, too.
“The improvisation element of classical music [which was an integral part of the discipline until the mid-19th century] hasn’t gotten lost for some reason. You have compositions from 300 or 400 years and there’s nothing change, except for maybe a little tempo change and things like that. Unfortunately, it has gotten a little like that with some aspects of this [jazz] music we play, too. People play these [jazz] standards from the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40 until now. There’s nothing wrong with that. There’s something of the most beautiful music ever written, by Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter and all these great composers,” he says.
But you have to keep on testing the water.
“I believe that’s a starting place, it’s not the final place. The whole objective of being an artist is to create your experience, and that goes for your playing, composing and arranging,” he adds.
Hart has certainly been doing that for nigh on three decades, after first coming to notice as one of the so-called Young Lions generation of the 1980s and 1990s, alongside the likes of trumpeter Roy Hargrove and guitarist Mark Whitfield.
“When I came on the scene in the early 1990s, they expected us to play a certain way. They wanted to hear the standards, the vocabulary that was something they could recognize,” he says.
But Hart is a product of his time and continues to try to remain contemporary and not get bogged down in jazz dogma.
“I’ve recorded with the best of the best, and I’ve had conversations with a lot of those guys who were around and are no longer around. But my personal approach is quite different and eclectic. I don’t just listen to Charlie Parker or whoever. I might be listening to rock guitar icons Jimi Hendrix or Jeff Beck, or Bob Marley or Marvin Gaye, as well as Miles Davis or Chick Corea or, for that matter, Beyoncé or Lady Gaga or Amy Winehouse. I think that’s what going on with some of new generations of guys here. I think that’s great,” he says.
For tickets and more information: (03) 573-3001 or www.hotjazz.co.il