December 6, 2016
Jamie Saft’s New Zion
RareNoise Records RNR 065
Clean Feed CF 364 CD
Roswell Rudd/Jamie Saft/Trevor Dunn/Balazs Pandi
Strength and Power
RareNoise Records RNR 059
By Ken Waxman
Jamie Saft has built up an impressive resumé as keyboardist, guitarist, composer, producer and engineer, who crosses musical boundaries with the surefootedness of a mountain goat with ADHD. One of these new CDs has him fitting a noise-rock garment over the free-music outfit worn by a jazz legend; a second joins reggae-accented improvisation to a Brazilian percussionist’s beat; the third brews a potion that adds equal parts metal and psychedelic rock to non-idiomatic improvisation.
Emanating both strength and power it’s Roswell Rudd who enlivens Strength and Power. Sixty years since he first recorded, the trombonist has the others, about 40 year younger, fallowing his lead, playing modern jazz infused with the joy Rudd absorbed from his Dixieland beginnings. Like laborers suddenly called upon to do high-tech calculations, the others – Saft, drummer Balazs Pandi and bassist Trevor Dunn – take a while to move out of their comfort zones, but mid-way through the first track they would join Rudd in the sound lab. On a track like “Dunn's Falls”, the bassist, known for his stint in Mr. Bungle, is smacking his strings with the woody intonation of a Paul Chambers. As for Hungarian Pandi, usually a rock drummer, he does a Dracula-like transformation to materialize as a jazz time-keeper, Saft, who has worked with masters like Steve Swallow, quickly adapts. In “The Bedroom”, for instance, like a patient lover he uses internal stops and keyboard pressure to hold off the climax suggested by Rudd’s yearning yelps. An Olympic-level sprint compared to the languid “The Bedroom”, “Strength and Power” maintains symmetry with tough drum crunches and bass power chords, while Saft and Rudd cunningly shift the program in many directions like sprinters Usain Bolt and Andre De Grasse trying to outflank each other. Rudd’s passion wins the race with a swaggering solo quoting “La Marseillaise” and “Rosmosis”.
Brazilian Cyro Baptista brings his percussion collection and voodoo-like chanting to Sunshine Seas an effort by Saft’s New Zion trio, which already links Rastafarian reggae and Kabalah mysticism. Initially the trio – bassist Brad Jones and drummer Craig Santiago – shows that it’s confident enough adapting Latin rhythms on tunes such as “Mystics” and “Growing Grow” that echoes of Ahmad Jamal’s south-of-the-border efforts abound. Once Baptista’s quavering vocals and crackling percussion intersect with tremolo keyboard lines the carnival links between Rio, Kingston and New Orleans become obvious. Not that the influences stop there. By the time “Ranking” comes along, the timbres of outer-space soundtracks surface as well. Creating an Afro-futuristic take on the genre, the reggae ostinato is supplemented with “Telstar”-like guitar twanging from Saft, who could be an astronaut making contact with the Afro-alien that is Baptista, who communicates through jaw harp plonks that resemble strumming a slinky. Although “Onda” may affect the most South American groove, encompassing Baptista’s ceramic drum jangles and whispering Portuguese vocals, electronic keyboard sizzles move the tune far away from bossa nova. The final “Samba Jahmekya” pinpoint’s more of Sunshine Seas’ genre-crossing. Brazilian conga and bongo swats brush against swaying Jamaican beats, until organ-like pulses conjure up the mental picture of a Carioca and a Rasta dueling with laser swords in a ‘70s discotheque.
The best instance of Saft playing well with others though is as part of the Starlite Motel quartet whose members are around his own age rather than 80 (Rudd) or 65 (Baptista). Like completing a crossword puzzle whose clues are aimed at boomers, the group uses shared experience for the task. Saft’s long reach from dub to metal to jazz is matched by three Norwegians: saxophonist Kristoffer Berre Alberts a noise and free music devotee; drummer Gard Nilssen, at home with rock-oriented bands like Bushman’s Revenge and jazz groups like Cortex; and bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, charter member of the free jazz-free rock trio The Thing.
Starting with “A Beautiful Nightmare”, the quartet brings out Saft’s rock-blues side. His slashing organ solos reflect mid-‘60s Stax-Volt, Nilssen’s beat is unrelenting and Alberts’ coiled altissimo could as easily come from James Chance as Arthur Doyle. Dexterously pushing the bottom as if accompanying Black Sabbath tunes, Håker Flaten ups the emotional level to near frenzy on “The Prince of the Face of the Bull”, as the saxophonist stutters out near-inchoate bombast. But the key is how each player’s timbres make a fulfilling statement as effectively as interlocking Lego bricks construct an object. Unlike heavy metal or ecstatic jazz bands, which often repeat one phrase to near-ennui, Starlite Motel doesn’t degenerate into formula. “A Thousand Thousands” for instance ends the CD uniquely as guitarist and the bassist trade twanging rockabilly licks on a tune shaped by Alberts’ banshee-like screams. Most critically on the extended “Suspended Veil”, while organ crescendos initially envelope the saxophonist’s irregular vibrations, Saft’s subsequent calming chording regularizes the others’ efforts as if they were a gospel choir’s joyful exclamations. Instances of Saft’s adaptability, these discs suggest he can do much more.
Tracks: Strength: Strength & Power; Cobalt Is Divine; The Bedroom; Luminescent; Dunn's Falls; Struttin’ For Jah Jah
Personnel: Strength: Roswell Rudd (trombone); Jamie Saft (piano); Trevor Dunn (bass) and Balazs Pandi (drums)
Tracks: Sunshine: BrazilJah; Chalice Pipe; Mystics; Sunshine Seas*; Growing Grow; Onda; Ranking; Lamb's Bread; Samba Jahmekya
Personnel: Sunshine: Jamie Saft (keyboards, piano and, electric bass); Brad Jones (bass); Craig Santiago (drums); Cyro Baptista (percussions, voice) and Vanessa Saft (vocals)
Tracks: Awosting; A Beautiful Nightmare; Starlite; The Art Of Silence; The Prince Of The Face Of The Bull; Suspended Veil; Minnewaska; A Thousand Thousandths
Personnel: Awosting: Kristoffer Berre Alberts (alto and tenor saxophones); Jamie Saft (Hammond organ, whitehall organ, moog, lapsteel guitar); Ingebrigt Håker Flaten (8-string fretless bass, precision Bass, Hi-Flyer Bass) and Gard Nilssen (drums, percussion, electronics)
—For The New York City Jazz Record December 2016