I discovered saxophonist Gary Bartz relatively recently. And I probably shouldn't admit the number of times I willfully dismissed other's recommendations to buy Music is My Sanctuary because some other record caught my attention. (Your boos and jeers are warranted). But Bartz and I have a wonderful relationship now.
This introductory tale should serve to remind you that unless you manage talent, there is no prize for finding an artist before your friends. Even bragging rights are ultimately hollow and put-offish. It's enough to come across good music when you do, then enjoy it for what it is and not because it signifies some ineffable elitist cool. And you should never hoard good music for yourself. Pay it forward and you'll be rewarded in kind.
But I digress.
Bartz - like Miles Davis or Herbie Hancock - is a stylistic chameleon, unapologetically blending and bending to his aural surroundings. I compare him to the greats in the hope that you'll see his adaptability not as the weakness of a lesser artist attempting to stay relevant or as the desperate floundering of a musician without a defined trademark. While Bartz is widely acknowledged as a jazz musician, he - like those other virtuosos - emphatically self-identifies, first and foremost, as a musician. Full stop.
Although he zealously avoids the "j word" because of its historical and aesthetic baggage, it's jazz as an idiom and as a theoretical foundation, that afforded him the inroads to explore all sounds.
His famous early-70s NTU Troop (pronounced "Into Troop") befittingly derived its name from a Bantu word (or suffix, rather) meaning: "unity in all things, time and space, living and dead, seen and unseen."
In an interview with All About Jazz, Bartz who currently teaches at Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio, lamented that "[His students] go to school to learn jazz which means they miss out on a whole lot of stuff. If all they are studying is jazz, they are not studying music. They need to study music and then they can play whatever they want."
When Bartz attended Juilliard as a young man - following in the footsteps of his idol Miles - the school didn't even have a jazz program. Bartz spent his classroom time pouring over Beethoven and Mozart. Only extracurricularly, through his LPs and in the clubs uptown did Bartz's hone his jazz chops. It's his synthesis of these diametrically opposed schools of learning: formal education in classical music and ear-training in jazz, enlivened further by fearless sojourns through foreign folk sounds and local street musics that continue to make Bartz such a formidable composer and player.
His early gigs in the 60s were alongside none other than Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln, as well as with Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers. A mere decade later he had secured a seat next to the master on a series of Miles' electric dates.
Between these two benchmarks Bartz established himself as a leader in his own right. His output on Milestone and parent label Prestige is a superb fusion of post-bop, soul, gospel and afro-political poetry. It was during this period that he also paired up with Andy Bey, Roy Ayers, McCoy Tyner, Pharoah Sanders, Woody Shaw. Soon followed his collaborations with Donald Byrd, Norman Connors, Herbie Hancock, Charles Tolliver and the Mizell Brothers.
Bartz has been at the epicentre of some seminal funky jazz, albums that were both stylistically innovative and commercially successful. As one critic praised, "He has the energy and honesty missing in pop music, but at the same time, he can communicate easily with audiences that have never heard his style of music."
That's no small accomplishment.
He's even won over Richard Cook - the author behind the Penguin Guide to Jazz and a staunch traditionalist with no qualms dismissing the entire 1970s soul jazz canon - who afforded Bartz this backhanded compliment: "It would be churlish to waste too much invective on music of such charm and energy, and it's worth saying that Bartz was something of a pioneer in trying to make jazz work alongside disco....We're secretly fond."
Well, we're publicly fond.
Gary Bartz - "Another Earth," Another Earth, Milestone, 1969.
Discogs: Another Earth
Gary Bartz NTU Troop - "Celestial Blues," Harlem Bush Music Uhuru, Milestone, 1971.
Discogs: Harlem Bush Music Uhuru
(See our article on Andy Bey for more cuts from Harlem Bush Music Uhuru.)
Gary Bartz NTU Troop - "Teheran," Juju Street Songs, Prestige, 1972.
Discogs: Juju Street Songs
Gary Bartz NTU Troop - "I've Known Rives," I've Known Rivers and Other Bodies, Prestige, 1973.
Discogs: I've Known Rivers and Other Bodies
Gary Bartz NTU Troop - "Dr Follow's Dance," Follow, The Medicine Man, Prestige, 1973.
Discogs: Follow, The Medicine Man
NTU With Gary Bartz - "Singerella," Singerella A Ghetto Fairy Tale, Prestige, 1974.
Discogs: Singerella A Ghetto Fairy Tale
Gary Bartz - "Gentle Smiles (Saxy)," The Shadow Do, Prestige, 1975.
Discogs: The Shadow Do
Gary Bartz - "My Funny Valentine," Ju Ju Man, Catalyst, 1966.
Discogs: Ju Ju Man
Gary Bartz - Music is My Sanctuary, Capitol, 1977.
Discogs: Music is My Sanctuary
"Music is My Sanctuary"
"Carnaval De L'Esprit"
Lecture for Red Bull Music Academy, San Francisco, 2012.