By Andrew Gilbert
Though he moved to Seattle last year after more than a decade as an essential player on the Bay Area jazz scene, tenor saxophonist Anton Schwartz still finds plenty of opportunities to return to the East Bay. The fact that he owns a loft in downtown Oakland, where he continues to hold house concerts, is one reassuring sign he’s not going to be cutting his ties here any time soon.
Dedicated to maintaining the powerful creative bonds he’s forged in the Bay Area, he’s back in town every month or so for gigs, while continuing to teach courses at the Jazzschool.
A commanding improviser with a fluid attack, warm, pliable tone and gift for spinning extended melodic lines, Schwartz performs on Friday at Caffé Trieste Berkeley from 8-10 pm with Alter Ego, a loose combo designed to give musicians a forum for performing on instruments they don’t usually bring to gigs.
Schwartz will be trading in his tenor for an alto sax, while ace pianist Adam Shulman is bringing an organ. First-call bassist John Wiitala was slated for the drum chair, but Bryan Bowman, a versatile drummer, is subbing. Schwartz and Shulman return to their usual musical identities later in the evening at Birdland Jazzista Social Club, where the tenor saxophonist performs with his quartet featuring bassist John Shifflett and drummer Greg Wyser-Pratte from 11 pm to the wee hours.
In many ways, Schwartz is a classic Bay Area story, a high achiever who decided to veer off a safe career path to follow his muse. Raised in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen, he caught the jazz bug early. His even, flowing rhythmic feel was shaped by his teenage studies with the brilliant but oft-overlooked tenor saxophonist Warne Marsh.
Music took a backseat while he 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 had completed all the course work in an artificial intelligence Ph.D. program at Stanford University before he decided to forgo the degree and devote himself to music full-time. Since dedicating his impressive 1998 debut CD “When Music Calls” to his late mentor Marsh, Schwartz has continued to refine his sound, while generously helping younger players find their own voices.
Andrew Gilbert lives in west Berkeley and covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and East Bay Express.