Jamie Saft: ‘It’s either good music, or it’s not’

Brian Morton digs into the priestly devotions of keyboard man Jamie Saft, from ZZ Top (what else, thus bearded?) to Charles Ives

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I’ve always been slightly suspicious of the word “eclectic”. This in the face of family history and one of our few sporting achievements. My grandfather held the record for lowest eclectic score on his local golf course, which means that his best-ever score on each hole was counted and that meant his improbable tally of holes-in-one gave him a signal advantage. Beyond that use of “eclectic”, it’s a fairly meaningless term, often deployed as camouflage when we don’t know quite how to describe a musician.

It emerges unbidden under the fingers when you set to writing about keyboard maestro Jamie Saft, for here’s a man who seems to have turned his eye to just about every form of contemporary music. Saft’s latest but one recording on RareNoise, You Don’t Know The Life, which teams him with Steve Swallow and Bobby Previte in one of the most interesting trio recordings of recent years, might lead you to think of him as someone who’s come through the jazz piano tradition by the Paul Bley route rather than the Bill Evans route, who knows the roots of the music as well as anyone, but is quite happy to throw out exotic blossoms and fruits from its outermost branches.

Saft’s a multi-instrumentalist and sound engineer as well as a piano and organ man. He’s worked in free improvisation with Derek Bailey, he’s been associated with John Zorn and several other artists from the Tzadik collective, with Leo Smith and Joe McPhee, but also with – and don’t worry if I lose you momentarily here – the Beastie Boys, Bad Brains, Donovan (Donovan!) and the B52s, all this in a recording career that now goes back more than two decades to his debut release as leader, Ragged Jack, with trumpeter Cuong Vu, genius saxophonist Andrew D’Angelo, and ditto drummer Jim Black. It’s still one of my favourite records from the late 90s. Saft was 26 when it came out, a graduate of the New England Conservatory. I bet they shook their heads gently when he left, thinking that they really didn’t have very much to teach this guy after all and that he was going to be very big in ways they wouldn’t understand.

‘I’ve always thought of all music as one thing. There are honestly no boundaries to what music can or should be, in my opinion’

That’s pretty much what’s happened, of course, which is why we reach for the Greek and mutter about “eclecticism”. It’s going to be the elephant in the room, so the elephant might as well be exercised. Does he care much about categories? Did he approach a Beastie Boys date in the same way he would approach an improv session or the presentation of a new classically oriented piece? (It’s worth mentioning that in appearance, he could be Arvo Pärt’s rebellious kid brother: same Dostoevskian beard.) The answer comes back pretty firmly. “I’ve always thought of all music as one thing. There are honestly no boundaries to what music can or should be, in my opinion. At times, the tools used are different in different musical situations, but essentially I’m always trying to make music that I would myself enjoy listening back to. It’s really that simple. It’s either good music, or it’s not”.

At first I don’t ask him about specific teachers at the conservatory, and I no longer ask questions about “influence”, but who were his most important inspirers? Again the answer comes right back. “Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, John and Alice Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Pharoah Sanders, Arnold Schoenberg, AC/DC, ZZ Top, Charles Ives, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway, Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer, Peter Tosh, King Tubby, Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Charlie Parker and Morris Day”.

Some of this makes immediate sense. The line about music either being good or not is often attributed to the Duke, and there are enough jazz names in there (though no other piano players) to establish a lineage. Bad Brains moonlit as a reggae band, which explains the Jamaican emphasis, but has anyone ever mentioned Arnold Schoenberg and AC/DC in the same sentence, or programmed a solo album with John Coltrane’s love poem Naima upside a tune by ZZ Top?

From anyone else, this might come across as simply gestural and a bit sophomoric: see how wide my tastes are? But with Saft, you always feel there is both logic and pleasure at the root of his choices. Right at the end of that list, he puts together Bird and Morris Day of the Time, who were associates, clients and rivals of Prince. What’s the connection? Not tenuous at all. Both of them squirrelled and magpied every single meaningful sound they ever heard, stored them away and then put them in solos and songs in a spirit of what – switching from Greek to French – philosophers call jouissance, a spirit of playful joy.

‘One of the things a jazz musician does is reconsider music they appreciate, music they love. I choose music that has great meaning to me’

“I never concern myself with what others might consider ‘suitable’ for me to interpret. One of the things a jazz musician does is reconsider music they appreciate, music they love. I choose music that has great meaning to me. Music that has been essential to my development. Why choose anything else? So all the artists and composers who have influenced me are included in my book of music. There is great architecture in the music of ZZ Top” – you just listen some day to Master Of Sparks or Sheik on Tres Hombres – “and there is incredible freedom in the music of Charles Ives. So each provides a space for me to stretch out and find something unique, something new”.

You Don’t Know The Life is the fifth Saft recording on RareNoise. He worked with Swallow and Previte on The New Standard (a telling title) and then with them and Iggy Pop on the wonderful Loneliness Road. He has a new three-LP box called Ceremonial Healing that was put together for Record Store Day with Marshall Allen and Danny Ray Thompson of the Sun Ra Arkestra, with Trevor Dunn on bass and Balazs Pandi on drums. Also coming on RareNoise (28 June 2019) is a quartet called Hidden Corners with Dave Liebman, Hamid Drake and Bradley Jones. Last year he put out that solo piano album based on a concert at the Teatro Carlo Felice in Genoa. It’s here that he makes his most cheerfully defiant statement of musical freedom, linking together no less than seven of the artists in that list of inspirers, plus something by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis for good measure. Right in the middle of the set, there’s a new, very personal version of The New Standard, so he knows what he’s doing and where these performances sit in the current, sometimes dumb debate about what exactly a “standard” might be. 

Until that record I’d never thought much about Saft as a solo performer. He’d always seemed like a group guy, provider of sonic oofle dust and a brilliant sense of texture and form. Heard alone, he has a very decided technique and every note choice seems both logical and faintly unexpected, even when the material is familiar. I wonder how much the specific instrument matters to him. Does he turn up, say hello, and then check out the action, or does he have very definite preferences?

“One of the challenges of being a pianist is that we rarely get to perform live with our own instrument. Though I have a beautiful vintage Steinway concert grand at my studio” – which lies in upstate New York – “it most obviously never travels. One can always hope for the best possible instrument but one is always ready to make the best out of any situation. I like a great concert instrument that has been maintained and regulated and cared for with respect and love. But I am tasked with making something magical appear from any instrument I am provided. I try my best to satisfy the listener and in the end myself as well”.

How many musicians do you know who describe themselves as being “tasked”, and regard music-making as a service? This is a guy with unusual and unusually old-fashioned imperatives. He acts almost like a court composer or Capellmeister from a past age, plugged into American cultural democracy.

Saft’s noted for his organ playing. I once asked Don Pullen about the differences between playing organ and piano and got a slightly dusty and irritable answer. Saft is philosophical. “They are quite different mechanically. The feel and technical approach can be different but in essence one is always dealing with the basic principles of physics. Understanding the physics of playing a keyboard instrument leads one to transcend the technical and go deeper into music”.

And then, quite naturally, it seems, education comes up. Saft went to Tufts before NEC. Does he feel he was shaped by his schooling or that he’s always trying to escape from it? “I was deeply shaped by my education, of course. I was fortunate to have amazing teachers throughout my musical life. In my youth, I studied with composer and piano technique guru Burton Hatheway. He taught me not just about the physics of the piano but about chords, harmony. Burton was incredibly accommodating of my interest in all musics. He saw I was an improviser at heart and taught me how to transcend the technical and get straight to my musical ideas.

It’s good to hear that he did indeed study with Paul Bley, but also ‘so many great masters of music. Joe Maneri was one of my greatest teachers. Others included Cecil McBee, who played on many of my favourite records, and Geri Allen’

The difference between someone who studied with Lennie Tristano and someone who went to NEC is that the former probably only studied with Tristano while the latter probably enjoyed an array of wise and, yes, eclectic tutelage. It’s good to hear that he did indeed study with Paul Bley, but also “so many great masters of music. [Radical saxophonist] Joe Maneri was one of my greatest teachers there. Others included [bassist] Cecil McBee, who played on many of my favourite records, and Geri Allen, whose playing I enjoyed greatly”.

But what Saft seems to have enjoyed more was the opportunity to create a musical hinterland without boundaries. “I improvised on a [György] Ligeti piece for the composer himself during a concert and received incredible positivity from him about what we were doing. I was also able to study Ives, Bartók and Schoenberg there. I studied Turkish music, klezmer, Indian music. I went to concerts as often as possible. In my second year I heard Naked City [John Zorn’s unhinged post-jazz group with Fred Frith, Bill Frisell, Wayne Horvitz and Joey Baron] and that concert showed me the limitless possibilities in music. And I continued to enjoy live shows by my popular music heroes, Dylan, Morris Day and The Time, ZZ Top. All of this shaped my music”.

Saft reckons he’s worked on music every single day of his life since he was seven. That means he’s been doing this thing for 40 years, at a level of commitment that amounts to almost priestly or monastic (and he rocks that look pretty well!) vocation. “To be a working musician today one must work 24 hours of every day, with no days off”. Then, after a pause, “Luckily I still really love music”. Really? We’d never have guessed.