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Sagov strikes a balance between medicine, music

Stanley Sagov Photo credit: Carolyn Sagov 05sagov

Carolyn Sagov

Dr. Stanley Sagov (pictured) will perform with Larry Coryell (below) at the Regattabar on Saturday.

When Dr. Stanley Sagov sits down in his Chestnut Hill home to answer an afternoon phone call, he’s already had the sort of very-busy day that is his specialty.

He rose at 5 a.m. and practiced piano for two hours, relearning some familiar jazz standards in different keys. Then he tried out his new folding bike with a 33-mile ride to Quincy and back — several laps up and down Wollaston Beach provided the highlight — and worked out logistics over the phone with friends who are coming to town to catch his headlining gig this weekend at Regattabar. This left some time to read The New York Times Magazine, before being interviewed over the phone by a newspaper reporter.

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It’s a good thing the holiday offered a “day off.” The next morning he’d be back at Family Practice Group, the integrative care center in Arlington that he cofounded more than 30 years ago. He’s also chief of the family medicine division at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, among other professional affiliations.

“I don’t sleep that much,” he says, “and that’s always been true. I have a lot of energy.”

The varied items jousting on his to-do list reflect the impression that Sagov, 70, has already lived several lives.

He was the white, Jewish teenager growing up in Cape Town, learning to play rock ’n’ roll (and then jazz) in illegal, racially integrated jam sessions. He was the sickly youth in leg braces, repeatedly traveling to London, New York, and Boston for a series of 16 complicated surgeries to correct skeletal deformities caused by a rare genetic disorder. He was the medical student who worked in the black townships of South Africa by day and played in the clubs by night.

And once he landed in the United States (via London) in the late 1960s, he worked in New York City’s Bellevue Hospital and also sat in with musical luminaries like Ornette Coleman, before moving to Boston to study jazz at the New England Conservatory of Music. He graduated with dual specialties in piano and oboe, and started to make his way as a bandleader.

Offered the chance to go on the road with his band, Sagov declined, choosing a career practicing medicine instead of a life of ceaseless touring. It’s now been about seven years since Sagov formed a new band and returned to gigging.

Perhaps it’s in his music that his world view is best expressed.

“It’s a sacred mission and the music is extraordinarily important to me, and the image we paint of a world where people can listen to each other and everybody counts,” he says. “The audience senses in real time that we’re painting this picture of how we’re relating together through the music, as a metaphor for how we might live our lives in some better world than the one we read about in the newspaper every day.”

Since re-emerging musically, Sagov has released 11 albums with his new outfit, the Remembering the Future Jazz Band, which is stocked with well-credentialed members of the region’s jazz scene. Mostly culled from live recordings cut at the Regattabar, this body of work represents a blizzard of activity after decades of relative quiet.

His repertoire includes original compositions like “Stanley’s Kwela,” which incorporate elements of the South African folk and popular music he was surrounded by during his upbringing. There’s also the occasional Jewish tune, eclectic selections from the jazz repertory (from Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” to Charles Mingus’s “Goodbye Porkpie Hat”), and sometimes a pop song translated into his hard-bop-informed style.

Saturday’s concert will be just the second time the group welcomes pioneering fusion guitarist Larry Coryell as a guest.

“Because of his South African influence, his jazz has got a lot of simple melodic ideas that are very appealing, but certainly not condescending and in no way trying to placate the audience,” Coryell says. “He’s got a great technique and he’s a great bandleader. He works with people very well.”

The guitarist will join Sagov, vocalist Wanetta Jackson, Robert Douglas Gay on alto saxophone, and two-thirds of the long-running local improvisational institution the Fringe — bassist John Lockwood and drummer Bob Gullotti.

Sagov, who is married and has two adult children, says he’s pleased to be playing out more, but the local jazz economy won’t support more than his handful of shows a year. He’d like to see area museums do more to welcome local jazz artists, and has felt frustrated by attempts to create new opportunities for his band short of touring.

“I’m 70 years old and I still can do it and I still love doing it,” he says. “So whatever else I have to say about the business, that’s the headline.”

Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at jeremy@jeremydgoodwin.com.
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