Global Sounds From Island Reedman

You can Listen Now to an NPR interview with Guadeloupe-born saxophonist Jacques Schwarz-Bart, son of writers André and Simone Schwarz-Bart and a musical star in his own right. Or you can read the interview below. You can also access the recording of the interview through the link below.

What do you get when you put together a jazz saxophonist from the French Caribbean island of Guadalupe and a soul singer from the Bronx, New York? The answer: a soulful album, rich in blended rhythms. “Rise Above” is the title of the latest project from husband-and-wife duo, musician Jacques Schwarz-Bart and vocalist Stephanie McKay. They talk to guest host Allison Keyes about their music and perform tracks of the album.

ALLISON KEYES, host:

I’m Allison Keyes and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. STEPHANIE MCKAY (Musician): (Singing) I would like to steal your mouth. I would like to steal your eyes. I would like to steal your soul. Keep them with me always. I would like to steal your warmth when I’m laughing, when I cry. (unintelligible) happiness on my back and in my heart.

KEYES: Soul, jazz and a vibe inspired by the island of Guadalupe, all merged into a sound that’s gentle but rich on a new album we think is worth listening to. It’s from Jacques Schwartz-Bart who brilliantly works his mean saxophone skills with Stephanie McKay’s haunting voice on an album called “Rise Above.” Both are with us along with musician Milan Milanovic on the piano. And they join us now from our studios in New York. Welcome and thanks for coming.

Ms. MCKAY: Thank you for having us.

Mr. JACQUES SCHWARTZ-BART (Musician): Hello, Allison. Great to hear you.

KEYES: Jacques, let me start with you. You were a French government official. How did you get so deeply in love with music that this became your career?

Mr. SCHWARTZ-BART: The love for music was first and foremost in my life and I guess being part of the Senate and other things that I complete in my previous career, was just a parenthesis.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEYES: Jacques, you chose the saxophone as your instrument. So, let’s hear a little bit of what you can do with it.

(Soundbite of music)

KEYES: Wow. Now that you’re warmed up, let’s here “Rainbow.” It’s a live version of one of my favorite songs from the album.

(Soundbite of song, “Rainbow”)

Ms. MCKAY: (Singing) I’m a rainbow. What are you? Are you the one tree in the desert or the stick for the blind? What are you? Are the bridge across the sea or a red balloon? I’m a rainbow. Are you a rainbow too? I’m a rainbow. I’m a rainbow. I’m a rainbow. I’m a rainbow. Rainbow.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEYES: I really love the lyrics to the song. I’m a rainbow. What are you? Are you the open road or a gust of wind? Where are you trying to take us?

Mr. SCHWARZ-BART: You know, I was on my way to getting Stephanie at the train station. I don’t know where she was coming back from. And while I was crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, I just felt this whole song coming to me. And by the time I met her in front of the station, there it was in my head. So I wanted it to be poetic, but not just a love song. It was basically a reflection on my human condition of the time.

KEYES: Stephanie, as a singer, you’re known so much for your very funky style. Was it hard to adjust to the much smoother vibe of this particular tune?

Ms. MCKAY: I think so, but the music has a very blues-based foundation and it’s very soulful. So it was another side to my artistry that I had to discover, and it was a pleasant surprise that it was easy, because the lyrics are meaningful and the music has depth. So it’s just a matter of feeling it just the way you feel funk and soul.

KEYES: Mm-hmm. Jacques, you were born on the island of Guadalupe. You lived in France, and later on, New York became your home. How has that affected your music?

Mr. SCHWARZ-BART: You know, I feel that over the years, there have been many pieces of dust gathered around my shoes as I was traveling the world, and hopefully, as I was traveling outside of this world, as well. And every time I try to write music, I try to assemble these little pieces of dust and make something out of it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEYES: Stephanie, you started out as a dancer. How’d you end up behind the mike instead?

Ms. MCKAY: Oh, man. Long years. Many journeys of trying to survive in New York City. But I always had a gift for singing. My whole family sings. All my aunts play the piano and sing music. So it was a natural gift that I ignored, because I struggled so hard to be a dancer. And then I had an injury, and I started auditioning as a singer. And I kept getting work and kept getting work, and the rest is history. Here I am.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEYES: And a fairytale. There’s so many singers out there…

Ms. MCKAY: Yeah. Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MCKAY: Yeah.

KEYES: …are pounding the pavement, then.

Ms. MCKAY: Yes, that’s true. Very true.

KEYES: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I’m speaking with saxophonist Jacques Schwarz-Bart and singer Stephanie McKay about their music and their latest album “Rise Above.”

So how did your musical and your personal collaboration with Stephanie start?

Mr. SCHWARZ-BART: You know, I got a Pro Tools system because I was tired of being dependent on other people to record my music. And at that time, I was getting off the road from D’Angelo’s tour and I was writing a mixture of soul and jazz music that later became what’s on this album.

KEYES: Wait. Let me stop you for a second. For our listeners that don’t know, Pro Tools is this really elaborate audio program. Now, go ahead.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHWARZ-BART: And then I started writing, for the first time, songs with lyrics. And Stephanie was the voice that I was hearing. So I tried to kind of convince her to sing those songs, and she was very reluctant at first.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHWARZ-BART: And…

Ms. MCKAY: And he never lets me forget it.

Mr. SCHWARZ-BART: Well…

Ms. MCKAY: He’s like, you didn’t even want to sing my first demos, and look how it turned out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHWARZ-BART: And then finally, she let herself, you know, go and relax a little bit and decided to actually try. And I think she finally loved the songs, and the rest is history.

KEYES: Stephanie, when did you know that this guy was the one? And was it the music that brought you in?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MCKAY: Yeah, we met. We met at a soul live gig. We were both playing and -when did I know he was the one? I don’t know. I don’t know. It just kind of hit me. It evolved, and now we’re 13, 12 years in the game. And we have a beautiful son, and I don’t know. I don’t know, but…

Mr. SCHWARZ-BART: I think she doesn’t, still doesn’t think I’m the one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEYES: On that note…

Ms. MCKAY: On that note…

KEYES: …before this degenerates any further, let me play another song from the CD, “Forget Regret.”

(Soundbite of song, “Forget Regret”)

Ms. MCKAY: (Singing) Forget. Whisper. More regret. Your hair. Your step. Your spin. Your care. Your shadow. Your heat. Your life. Your stare.

I don’t want to be free if it means that I’ll be without you, babe, without you, babe. I just want you to see how much you mean to me. I really love you. I really love you.

KEYES: So, Jacques, you and Stephanie had just met, more or less, when you wrote that song, and you said it’s the first you wrote with lyrics.

Mr. SCHWARZ-BART: Yeah.

KEYES: Is writing with lyrics more difficult than writing simply with music and not words?

Mr. SCHWARZ-BART: It’s a different art form altogether, because you cannot think of the melody by itself. You have to think of a certain lines of phrase and not too many notes to be able to support saying something over it, you know. And you have to think of spots to breathe and telling a story through not only the lyrics, but also through the melody. So it’s a different art form, altogether.

KEYES: Was this a love letter to her?

Mr. SCHWARZ-BART: Of course.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MCKAY: I’m blushing. Okay, everyone. Now I’m blushing.

Mr. SCHWARZ-BART: And also it’s – I wanted to tell her what I was, you know, my vision of love, you know, love in my hoping in her to be cherished and treated as something precious in order for it to last. So that was the message, also.

KEYES: Stephanie, what did you think when you first heard these words?

Ms. MCKAY: Oh, my goodness. I was blown away. I was like, how did you become a better songwriter than I did? I don’t know. I loved it. I absolutely loved it. And now when I listen to the songs, I always find another meaning in it, or it always reminds me of things that, you know, are important in our personal relationship. You know, it’s a nice little testimony we can always go back to to, to remind ourselves hey, you know, this is a special person in my life and I don’t want to mess this up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEYES: Jacques, I’ve got to ask, what are you working on now?

Mr. SCHWARZ-BART: Just completed a new set of compositions within the, I would say, pioneer genre of music that combines jazz and voodoo music from Haiti. It’s called jazz rasin, because rasin is the name of voodoo music in Haitian Creole. And it was a deeply spiritual experience for me. I had two voodoo priests and five New York jazz musicians in my band, and we just presented this new work at the great Banlieues Bleues Festival jazz festival in Paris. And this is a new adventure altogether, and I’m really proud of having been able to completed this challenge.

KEYES: How would you describe voodoo music for people that haven’t heard it?

Mr. SCHWARZ-BART: Well, it’s a combination of different percussions and voice. There are usually large choirs answering one lead singer, who is usually the voodoo priest.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing in foreign language)

Unidentified Group: (Singing in foreign language)

Unidentified Man: (Singing in foreign language)

Unidentified Group: (Singing in foreign language)

Mr. SCHWARZ-BART: And these melodies are really, really out of this world, because not only are they powerful, the voices are really, really strong and subtle at the same time. But they encompass many different modes of melodies and scales that are actually also used in jazz music. Really, it’s a special music because it’s all intended to call spirits, and that intention changes the artistry behind it because the consequences of what you do are much heavier. And it brings, basically, musicians and audience and everyone involved together in a very spiritual way, you know.

KEYES: It’s really interesting that you said that, because I guess I’ve been thinking about the musicians that don’t take that kind of care with the music that they’re performing, and you’re hearing a lot of that on the radio these days. And I wonder, what do you make of the success of the people that are using the auto-tunes, or people that are not thinking through the message or the meaning of their music? As opposed to someone like you and your wife, who are really writing things that they care about and really trying to create an image for people.

Mr. SCHWARZ-BART: It’s a very important question that you’re raising, and I think of it in comparing this to food. You know, you have fast food, and McDonald’s is much more successful commercially than any other food. So it goes with music. You know, I think the easiest and possibly most degrading form of music is the one that everybody hears on the radio and that gets the big bucks, you know, and that’s how it goes. The same thing with food and just about anything that you can think about.

Ms. MCKAY: That is consumed, really.

Mr. SCHWARZ-BART: Yeah. It’s about mass consumption.

KEYES: All right. We are sadly out of time. But I wonder if you wanted us to choose a song from this CD to go out on. What would you like?

Ms. MCKAY: “Rise Above,” maybe.

Mr. SCHWARZ-BART: “Rise Above” us. Yeah. Why not?

KEYES: All right.

(Soundbite of song, “Rise Above”)

Mr. SCHWARZ-BART: (Singing) I just want to say a prayer (unintelligible). I just want to say a prayer (unintelligible).

KEYES: Jacques Schwarz-Bart is a saxophonist. His latest album is called “Rise Above,” a musical collaboration with his wife, singer Stephanie McKay. They joined us from our studios in New York, along with, on the piano, Milan Milunovich.

Thank you all for joining us.

Mr. SCHWARZ-BART: Thank you, Allison.

Ms. MCKAY: Thank you, Allison. It’s been a real pleasure.

(Soundbite of song, “Rise Above”)

Mr. SCHWARZ-BART: (Singing) (unintelligible). Doesn’t know my spirit is fine.

KEYES: And that’s the program for today.

For the original report go to http://www.npr.org/2011/04/07/135209958/global-sounds-from-island-reedman

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