Interview: Anton Schwartz wins first Golden Ear Award
Anton Schwartz

In 2015, saxophonist Anton Schwartz received his first Golden Ear nomination from the Earshot Jazz organization in Seattle. It was for “Instrumentalist of the Year.” He didn’t win, but he made quite an impression ever since.

Earlier in March, he won his first Golden Ear in a category more to his liking and more in line with his forte, “NW Acoustic Ensemble.”

Schwartz would be the first to credit his revolving band mates for beefing up the win, amazing players like trumpeter Thomas Marriott and drummer D’Vonne Lewis from Seattle, where he’s based, pianist Josh Nelson and drummer Lorca Hart from California, along with guest stars Russ Ferrante (Yellowjackets) and Terell Stafford.

Yesterday, the super-busy musician took some time to catch AXS up on the latest since the win in an interview.

AXS: You’ve been nominated for two Golden Ear Awards in your career so far, the first in 2015 for “Instrumentalist of the Year.” You just won for “NW Acoustic Ensemble” this year. This collaborative win seems to be a no-brainer, since you excel at bringing the right musicians together for the tastiest jams up and down the West Coast. What do you get out of the collaborative experience, over soloing as “the star?”

Anton Schwartz: For years, I did most of my work leading a quartet — me and a rhythm section — because I wanted the freedom. When you go to multiple horns out front, you have to stay closer to a roadmap in order to sound tight together, so it’s tougher to go in different directions on the fly. The quartet put me front and center, as the focus of attention… but that isn’t something I particularly seek. In the quintet format, the trumpet mostly takes on the lead voice, so it gives me a chance to recede a bit into the band rather than having to carry so much attention myself. It’s fun to be the color commentator rather than always doing the play-by-play, as it were. I get to focus a bit more on the big picture and act more as the composer and producer rather than the central figure… which feels right.

AXS: As a jazz saxophonist, playing well with others is not only a given, but a natural extension of your self-expression. But it’s much more difficult to stand out, so to speak, in a group setting when you’re not a vocalist or a part of the traditional rhythm section.

AS: As far as standing out, I actually think I have it a bit easier than a rhythm section player, because I literally stand up front and play the melody and hold a shiny horn. Sadly, rhythm section players in our culture are mostly thought of as accompanists. The real challenge to standing out is the “not a vocalist” part you mention. For many people, anything that doesn’t have lyrics naturally feels like some kind of interlude… like background music that’s just playing until the “real thing” comes along. And that “real thing” is something that tells a story with words, and that you can sing along with. Maybe instrumental music is a bit like a book compared with a movie. Vocal music, like a movie, appeals to more parts of the brain — verbal parts that we’re used to paying attention to all day long — so it can be easier for people to fall into and be absorbed. In our world of constant sensation, reading a book requires a bit more concentration and resolve. Similarly, instrumental music can be tougher for people to dial into. That gives me the challenge of writing songs that grab the listener. And I welcome that challenge. As my father used to say, it’s a good thing people don’t have earlids!

AXS: What have been some challenges in finding your own groove, your own voice, and conveying that through the group dynamic?

AS: Finding your own voice…. There’s finding your voice as a soloist — perfecting your sound and your technique, your phrasing and your vocabulary. But then there’s finding your musical voice in a broader sense — looking at a composition you play holistically and creating an experience that has unity and flow. What is the message of a song, in some abstract sense, and how do you compose and arrange and select the musicians and direct them… all in order to achieve that? It’s a different skill and one that I’ve had fun developing over the years. For me, it’s an essential ingredient in all the music I like to listen to, be it jazz or any other kind. And I think, when we get it right, it’s what makes my band’s music appealing to people who aren't necessarily passionate about jazz. But it requires a bunch of ingredients. The most frustrating ones are not the musical ones, which I can always work on, but the practical ones that can feel beyond my control. Once you find the right players, scheduling and logistics can be a nightmare. It’s a price of expressing your own voice, as you say, rather than just hiring talented players and seeing what happens.

AXS: What do you most enjoy about the collaborative aspect of jazz performance, besides the obvious?

AS: The obvious being that I get to work with amazing artists and feed off their musicality? Yep, that’s pretty incredible! There are some other perks too. One is that it’s so much fun to bring musicians together. Bringing Seattleites down to play with my California band mates, and vice versa. Next month, I’ll be taking a combined California-Washington group up to Canada for a little tour. It’s great to experience how players whom you know interact when they come together for the first time, and especially gratifying to be the cause of a coming together that seems natural. Like throwing a party where you know two of your friends who haven’t met will particularly hit it off… and they do. It’s a kick being the instigator behind great collaborations!

AXS: You’re well-known around here for ensemble performances, as well as having hosted your popular Loft Concerts, which results in you gigging a lot. What shows are you most looking forward to?

AS: A bunch of things are coming together for the rest of the year. I’ve got some sextet gigs down in California in August that I’m especially looking forward to. Writing for three horns — trumpet, sax, and trombone — gives a richer palette to work from. Maybe I’ll get a chance to bring that music to Seattle too!

AXS: Whatever happened to your Loft Concerts? You used to host different artists in your West Seattle home, and also Oakland. It was a great opportunity for jazz fans to experience a variety of music up close. Are they coming back?

AS: I sure hope so, but not quite yet. My wife and I moved from West Seattle to the Eastside to be closer to her work for a while, and our place there isn't conducive to concerts. I still have the original loft in Oakland — it’s where I stay and where I teach privately when I’m down in California — but I’ve usually got a bunch of stuff on my plate when I’m down there other than loft concerts, and with my wife living in Seattle, we don’t do them more than every year or two. There was a time when we'd do eight or 10 a year. Maybe that’ll happen again — just not quite now.

AXS: What about your next album? Flash Mob came out in 2014…

AS: I’ve got the concept for the next one and a few of the tunes written. You’ll hear about it when it takes shape!