More than 15 years after his last release as a leader, saxophonist Rick Margitza makes his long-awaited return with the captivating new album Sacred Hearts, due out February 5, 2021 via Le Coq Records. The deeply personal album takes stock of the joys and tragedies that have unfolded over the last decade and a half, with new compositions dedicated to those lost along the way as well as the new life that has come into being.
Sacred Hearts also features the recorded debut of Margitza’s longstanding Paris-based quartet, in which he’s joined by pianist Manuel Rocheman, bassist Peter Giron and drummer Jeff Boudreaux. The saxophonist relocated to the City of Lights since 2013, and has enjoyed weekly gigs with the group – French native Rocheman and fellow expats Giron and Boudreaux – for a number of years, honing the tight camaraderie that can be heard throughout this set. The core band is also supplemented by guitarist and banjo player Oliver Louvel, percussionist Xavier Desandre Navarre, and vocalists Chloe Cailleton and Pierre de Bethmann.
While many of the pieces on Sacred Hearts honor people who have passed away in recent years, from family members to fellow musicians, the overall feeling of the album is far from mournful. There are certainly moments of profound melancholy and tinges of the bittersweet, but Margitza set out to celebrate lives well lived rather than to dwell on tragic losses.
“My heritage is Eastern European Gypsy,” he explains. “Our funerals are a lot like New Orleans funerals: the older men get together and play sad music, but once the person is buried we party and celebrate them. I didn’t set out to explore that kind of dichotomy on this record, but I think there’s inevitably a sense of celebration intertwined with the sadness.”
The emotional core of the album is vibrantly represented by the cover painting, “Heart Forest,” by Colombian-American artist Patricia González. Margitza first encountered the image decades earlier, when his then-partner gifted him a postcard print. The tender title track is dedicated to Margitza’s nephew, Nolan Vahosky, who died at the far too young age of 13 due to medical negligence related to a heart defect. The album’s closing piece, the elegiac tenor-piano duet “Poem,” was inspired by the awful coincidence of an ex-partner’s niece, Sabrina Seelig, passing away under similarly negligent circumstances.
“That’s the irony of life,” Margitza says sadly. “My ex and I both lost a niece or nephew due to mishandling in the hospital. They both passed away when they didn’t have to, so I wrote ‘Poem’ in Paris when I heard the news. Both pieces came to me very quickly.”
The album opens with the surging “Truth Be Told,” dedicated to the late saxophonist Gerry Niewood, best known for his long association with Chuck Mangione. Niewood was lost in a plane crash in 2009 at the age of 65. “There’s something in Gerry’s playing that conveys the truth,” Margitza says of the title, while his improvisation over the opening vamp includes a sly quote from a favorite Niewood solo.
“Gerry was one of my first major influences growing up,” Margitza says. “I was studying classical piano but I had an older cousin who was already into the jazz scene, and she introduced me to artists like the Brecker Brothers and Chuck Mangione. So even before I got into John Coltrane or Charlie Parker I heard Gerry Niewood’s playing on all those early Chuck Mangione records, which to me are still some of the most gorgeous saxophone improvisations ever documented.”
Michael Brecker, who passed away in 2007 from the blood disorder MDS, was also a key influence, and is honored here in an unexpected way with the eccentrically funky “Country Mike.” As Margitza explains, “There’s a little part of Brecker’s playing on his earlier recordings, especially with the band Dreams, where he was definitely influenced by country-style guitar players. So instead of trying to write another Coltrane-inspired Michael Brecker tribute, I thought I’d try to capture another side of him that’s a little less well known, more of a rock and roll or boogaloo kind of feeling.”
The tune climaxes with nine separate overdubbed tracks of Margitza soloing – an acknowledgement, he says, that “it would take at least nine of me to make up a little fraction of Michael’s playing.” Margitza also layers multiple sax tracks on the playful “Muse,” an idea that he traces to his early love of the Charlie Parker tribute group Supersax. “Muse” is dedicated to the many artists who’ve influenced him as well as the elusive nature of inspiration itself.
“When I’m composing,” he says, “I try to put myself in a state where I just let things come through without judging. Sometimes I get really lucky and I’m able to grab a melody like that out of the air. To me, that comes from the grand muse, whatever you want to say that is.”
The freewheeling “Place To Be” takes its name from a Seinfeld reference while recalling the impromptu dance parties that would break out among Margitza’s Gypsy relatives, whether during the holidays or even around the release of a new Motown record. “Crying,” whose title is captured in Margitza’s weeping tenor lines, sums up his feelings for the various family members lost in recent years, while the high-spirited “12-123,” with guest clapping and counting by a host of relatives, welcomes a number of new births into the fold.
Louvel’s silky guitar sets a romantic mood for “Leading Lady,” dedicated to the women who have graced the composer’s life, while the wistful “Far From Home” was penned after a holiday visit, reflecting the bittersweet feelings inherent in setting down roots in a country other than one’s own. And “Trails of Tears” is dedicated to those souls killed at the hands of social injustice, from Margitza’s Gypsy heritage to the Native Americans forced off of their ancestral lands, to those still fighting for justice whose deaths make all-too-frequent headlines today. Whether family, friends, mentors or inspirations, Margitza concludes, “This record goes out to all these hearts that were sacred to me.”