Feature story: “Anton Catches On”

San Francisco Chronicle — Oct 8, 2006

Anton Catches On

by Andrew Gilbert

Scoring a top 10 hit on the jazz charts isn’t quite the same thing as ruling the pop charts. MTV doesn’t call, and you can walk down most streets unmolested by fans. But for Oakland tenor saxophonist Anton Schwartz, whose third full-length album on his AntonJazz label, “Radiant Blue,” is cresting near the top of the JazzWeek listings, the ranking is an impressive feat by a musician who is running his own show, from booking his own gigs to overseeing the CD’s design and production.

“I look at the other people in the top 10, and they’re nationally known, established musicians like Diana Krall, Dave Holland, Regina Carter,” says Schwartz, 38, over lunch at a Solano Avenue cafe in Albany. “That’s the exciting part of doing it yourself. You get to imagine something and make it so.”

Featuring 21-year-old piano star Taylor Eigsti, ace New York guitarist Peter Bernstein and the highly responsive Bay Area rhythm section tandem of bassist John Shifflett and drummer Tim Bulkley, “Radiant Blue” features some of Schwartz’s most focused playing yet. Released in August, the album features a diverse array of original tunes all based on the blues form. While Schwartz has clearly internalized blues feeling, the CD isn’t an exploration of what he calls the “emotional vocabulary” of the blues.

“When you’re a jazz musician, you spend so much time with the blues that it’s like home,” says Schwartz, whose playing is distinguished by his penchant for spinning long, graceful lines and a sinewy, middleweight tone. “The blues form is the thread running through the album. Some people might see it as a really obscure point to make, but it wouldn’t be an obscure thing to write a collection of short stories that are all varied aspects of the place you grew up in.”

Perhaps Schwartz’s interest in abstract structures stems from his background in mathematics. Raised in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen, he developed an interest in jazz early. His even, flowing rhythmic attack was shaped by his teenage studies with the brilliant but often-overlooked tenor saxophonist Warne Marsh, to whom Schwartz dedicated his 1998 debut CD, “When Music Calls.” Music took a backseat while Schwartz studied math and philosophy at Harvard, though he found time to play in the school’s jazz band, holding down the first-saxophone chair in a section that included future jazz stars Joshua Redman and Don Braden. Schwartz moved to the Bay Area in the mid-’90s and completed all the course work in an artificial intelligence doctorate program at Stanford, but decided to forgo the degree and devote himself to music full time.

Part of Schwartz’s DIY success comes from his canny propensity for surrounding himself with accomplished and capable collaborators both on and off the bandstand. For instance, drummer and longtime jazz radio personality Bud Spangler has co-produced all of Schwartz’s albums. Spangler is not surprised that Schwartz’s music has found an audience outside the Bay Area.

“It’s very accessible,” he says. “For lack of a better term, it’s a catchy group of compositions. They grab you and stay with you. I do a certain amount of gigging with Anton, and the growth in his playing has really been impressive. He works really hard, and he’s swinging his fanny off.”

Schwartz’s gift for communicating through his horn may be most evident in an unlikely context: sacred music. Though raised in a secular Jewish household, he’s become the player of choice for sacred concerts in the Bay Area, like his jazz vespers gig this afternoon at Peace Lutheran Church in Danville, where he’ll be joined by vocalist Inga Swearingen for a duo set. He’ll be with his quartet when he makes his eighth annual appearance at Old First Church’s jazz vespers series on Dec. 3. And he plays another jazz vespers service with his quartet at Noe Valley Ministry on Dec. 17.

“They’re only a fraction of what I do, but jazz vespers are some of my favorite gigs,” Schwartz says. “Music can be one of the deepest, most profound expressions. I love the fact that these churches are not afraid to make an improvisational art form part of what they do. When you allow that, it’s taking a gamble.”

Schwartz’s whole DIY project is a gamble, one that seems to be paying off, judging by the rapid rise of “Radiant Blue” on the charts. While he played a series of well-publicized album-release gigs at various festivals and Yoshi’s, he also presents himself in low-profile performances at his Oakland loft. Often taking advantage of the availability of musicians coming through town, such as last month’s performance with New York pianist Art Hirahara, the house concerts provide a rarefied musical experience to a word-of-mouth audience.

“We make it really homey, but we charge at the door,” says Schwartz, who gives his next loft performance on Oct. 13 with powerhouse pianist Joe Gilman, bassist Shifflett and drummer Jason Lewis. “Afterwards, I’ll often get a couple of notes from people thanking me for inviting them to my party.”

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