This past Sunday January 6th, I went to see the performance of Jamie’s Saft’s New Zion Trio at the Cornelia Street Café. Jamie Saft, now in his early 40s and very long-bearded, is generally known for his jazz records on Tzadik label, and various collaborations with Tzadik’s producer, John Zorn, the legendary avant-garde composer and saxophonist. Generally gravitating towards jazz, Saft has easily moved across genres as diverse as heavy metal, klezmer, noise, and even put out a tribute album to Bob Dylan. Rather than genre-hoping, however, this nomadicism reflected an exploration of attitudes, philosophical platforms, as this latest project, New Zion Trio, came to reflect as well. Here are a few notes from the concert.
At one point last night, as I looked around, nearly everyone crammed in the basement of Cornelia Street Café had their eyes closed, swaying over their cocktails and silenced smart-phones, as Jamie Saft’s latest project, the New Zion Trio was tearing through the finale of their set. The band–comprising of Craig Santiago on drums, Brad Jones on the upright bass, and Saft himself on piano and synth–leans towards the experimental reggae-dub sound, but at that particular moment, they were playing a piece called “Pincus”, one Saft’s klezmer-inspired compositions. With dub treatment, the tune was given fantastic, blurry shape, belonging less to specific musical tradition than an urge, a feeling, an image.
Over the decades, a number of non-Caribbean bands have adopted the reggae sound, many of them, commercializing and fetishizing the music, diluting the traditional, folky strain of it–think UB40 or the particularly unfortunate case of Matisyahu, with his ill-fitting Patois inflections. The music’s great appeal, as underscored by its connection to Rastafarianism, is spirituality–worship, praise, and chanting. Saft’s band approaches the music with a great deal of respect, and rather than co-opting it, builds on the particular introspective lens it offers. Keeping reggae’s trademark “gasping” rhythm, Saft uses unusual, jazz-like chords; he often surges into incredibly long, panoramic phrases on the piano, which in their melodic structures and emotional uproar are more reminiscent of certain Western classical music. Jazz improvisations and blues are there as well, and a whole lot more, all hovering above the thick layers of sound, propelled by the rhythm section.
During most of the set, the band dug into the material off their second album which will be released this April. The fact that reggae-punk legend HR of the Bad Brains band has joined the New Zion Trio on the studio recording, makes the release all the more anticipated.
As a musician, Jamie Saft is not easy to pin down. Each of his ventures can and no doubt should be considered without comparison to any previous recording, composition, or performance for that matter. Saft’s consistent inconsistency characterizes the breadth of his musicianship on keyboards, acoustic piano and electric guitar. Exposing unexpected contexts for well-known songs, compositions, and his own music puts him in that label-less zone that frustrates clear perceptions of him, but which also keeps him out of sedentary, stale ruts that are so often carved out by other musicians.
New Zion Trio is described on Saft’s Veal Records website as “bringing together three masters of Reggae and Jazz musics for the first time in a unique piano trio setting straight from Kingston [NY] Yard.” With Saft on piano and Fender Rhodes, Larry Grenadier on acoustic bass and Craig Santiago on drums are created a laid back, totally listenable set of tracks. Each track title has a metaphorical twist in keeping with the record’s title, Fight Against Babylon.
Nothing less than rhythmic, the music is fluid and comfortable. It varies from the serious and pensive to the most airy and pleasurable. The music is essentially timeless. Yet, swinging from one character to another, it is still one line. As keyboard artist, with great flair, Saft exercises superb fingering techniques to fill out his melodic constructions with trills, arpeggios, scalar runs or progressions. The left and right hands balance each other: there is more treble tone than bass, whether or not he plays piano, Fender Rhodes or both simultaneously, inside and out. His stellar phrasing has as much to do with his innate, acute sense of time as with the solid sonic backbone provided by the pizz phrasing and lines from bassist Grenadier or hi-hat, cymbal, stick to snare edge to skin and occasionally to tom combinations from drummer Santiago.
Fight Against Babylon invites and proves true the notion that Saft is a straight-forward, no bullshit musician. He can do anything he wants to and he does.
Slow Down Furry Dub; Niceness; The Red Dies; Gates; I hear Jah; IShense; Lost Dub; Fire Blaze.
Jamie Saft: piano, Fender Rhodes; Larry Grenadier: bass; Craig Santiago: drums.
Take the eerie atmospherics of Scratch Perry and apply them to the realm of acoustic piano. Add a flair for insightful improvisation tempered by years of experimental derring-do, and voila: In a flash, you have Fight Against Babylon, one of the year’s most bewitching small ensemble records. Pianist Jamie Saft, bolstered by the springy riddims of bassist Larry Grenadier and drummerCraig Santiago, comes up with a dub-influenced jazz program that reflects Jamaica’s studio sorcery while harking back to Alice Coltrane’s dreamy elaborations.
With several provocative titles on the Tzadik imprint, Saft works myriad arenas. But he’s no dabbler. The resonance of New Zion Trio stems from the music’s focus on getting the vibe right. As Santiago’s high-hat clicks and Grenadier’s bass lopes on “The Red Dies,” an airy atmosphere takes over. Saft’s right hand does lots of heavy lifting on this session. Trills are repeated, a mood is established, and as the groove insinuates itself in your head, a narcotic tone dominates. The threesome concocts something both engaging and ethereal.
On “Hear I Jah,” Saft switches to a Rhodes and launches into a prayer with fervid conviction. The band may be genuflecting to Scientist and Augustus Pablo, but it’s Lonnie Liston Smith who opens the Pearly Gates. Through warm clusters of keys, the pianist weaves a rich fabric of sound. “Lost Dub” allows things get sparse again, and the song’s insistence becomes addictive. Ultimately, the groove supplies the leader with all the liftoff his reveries need.
The jazz piano trio and Jamaican dub music—the reggae sub-genre that focuses on slowing down the original reggae mix and emphasizing the bass and drums tracks with studio wizardry—seem to be two distant musical universes. Yet producer and multi-instrumentalist Jamie Saft's New Zion Trio debut recording succeeds in blowing fresh winds in the traditional piano trio with dub aesthetics, citing King Tubby, Bob Marley, Bill Evans,Pharoah Sanders and Alice Coltrane as influences.
All the compositions, except the closing "Fire Ablaze," were recorded live without any overdubs or studio-enhanced manipulations, but still follow in the Jamaican dub footsteps in their unhurried meditative pulse. Saft's piano and Fender Rhodes chime, while double-bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Craig Santiago emphasize the trance-like pulse slowly and methodically, as if every note counts. New Zion Trio's articulation of the themes is quite different from the typical piano jazz trio as it is not about exploring complicated harmonic possibilities or chord changes, or developing ever-changing roles amongst the trio. This group clearly does not subscribe to any usual model of the piano trio, nor does it make any attempt to swing.
"The Red Dies," one of the compositions that features a clear reggae drumming style, demonstrates this trio's artistic path. All its members surround the meditative pulse, with the walking bass, the drumming and the piano's harmonic development pushing while still allowing plenty of room to fully absorb and surrender to the the addictive pulse. "Hear I Jah" floats around Saft's chiming Rhodes, while Grenadier and Santiago cement the theme in a light reggae-tinged pulse. Grenadier shares the lead with Saft on "Gates" and "Ishense," with his rich sounding bass, while "Fire Ablaze" sounds like a minimalist piece with its gentle, repetitive sound.
The digital version of this beautiful album adds a bonus dub remix of "Hear I Jah" from Dubmaster Christian Castagno called "Inna Sade Dub, intensifying the positive vibrations message of the promising New Zion Trio.
Track Listing: Slow Down Furry Dub; Niceness; The Red Dies; Gates; Hear I Jah; Ishense; Losr Dub; Fire Ablaze; Ina Sade Dub (Christian Castagno Dub).
Personnel: Jamie Saft: piano, Fender Rhodes; Larry Grenadier: double-bass; Craig Santiago: drums.
"Doom Jazz" is a concept turning around four people. Andrea Kleine, who wrotes the storylines, Marq Spusta, who did the story-artworks, and two extremely talented musicians who wrotes and played the soundtrack, Jamie Saft (bass and piano) and Bobby Previte (drums). The name "Doom Jazz" represents perfectly the music played by the duo in the way it mixes the slow and creepy rhythms of doom metal with the explorations and deepness of jazz. On the one hand it will appeal to those who like atmospheric doom death, funeral doom or depressive black metal, and on the other hand it will surely please to those who like free-jazz or even contemporary music in the vein of many JOHN ZORN's works. The main thing that emerges from the listening of this opus is the dark, frightful and tortured feeling that many doom albums can't even approach. The whole stuff is based upon the contrast between the quite repetitive bass lines and the staggering drums, with piano notes coming here and there to create the gloomy atmospheres. A splendid album made by genius. Just close your eyes and dive into the doom jazz.
How shall I put it ?... This is an incredible record from outter space ! This headblowing duo consists in Jamie Saft on keyboards and bass (ELECTRIC MASADA, JAMIE SAFT TRIO and others) and Mike Pride on drums, voice and other flutes. The album features 2 cds and more than 2 hours of ground-shaking low-pitched cocktail of doom metal and noise. Influences seem to come from black metal, death metal, doom metal, blues, noise and free-jazz, but in the end it appears to be far more than just a melting-pot. It's more experimental than black and death, doomier than doom, more extreme than both noise and jazz, and maybe crazier than any other musical style. This crazyness comes from contrast between some repetitive bass lines and Pride's improvisations on drums, but also from the alien voices and the diversity of the whole stuff. An opus like no one else, for unique listeners.
At Winter Jazz Fest, I saw him play organ in his Whoopie Pie band, which is more or less a saxophone trio a la doom-metal, and it kind of blew my mind.
Keyboardist Jamie Saft's Whoopie Pie, featuring drummer Mike Pride and saxophonist Bill McHenry, treated jazz as though it were metal. The elevated decibel levels, the aggression, and the aura of doom were all present, although so were some deconstructed elements of jazz: late in the set, Saft walked a bass line on a synthesizer, and Pride played something of a ride cymbal pattern to match.