Shortly after moving to Maine last year, jazz keyboardist Jamie Saft called up the Casco Bay Tummlers, a Portland band that plays Jewish klezmer music.
Over the past 30 years, Saft has established a reputation as one of the most versatile and skilled keyboardists in jazz and avant-garde music, playing with the best musicians in these genres and teaming up with rockers Iggy Pop, Bad Brains and the B-52s, among many others. He has lived most of that time in New York or a few hours from New York and usually plays in Europe several times a year.
But since making his home in the rural Lincoln County town of Alna, Saft has sought to play with local musicians and at local venues whenever he can. He will perform with the Casco Bay Tummlers on October 28 at Mayo Street Arts in Portland, and in November he will release a new album called “Jamie Saft Trio Plays Bill Evans”, featuring musicians from Maine. He played a benefit at the Hidden Valley Nature Center in Jefferson in late August, and in early September he played Space on Congress Street, opening for jazz guitarist Joe Morris and saxophonist Ken Vandermark.
“It’s incredibly inspiring to see a musician of Jamie Saft’s stature and experience move to Maine and immediately want to connect with the music community in a very real way,” said Peter McLaughlin, who plays drums in the Casco Bay Tummlers and also organizes concerts for Espace. “I wouldn’t blame him one bit if he just set up his studio in the sticks and worked from there, traveling back and forth to Europe. But it was clear from the first conversation we had that he wanted to be here. He wants to work with and hire local musicians.
A WONDERFUL COMPROMISE
Saft, 51, moved with his wife and three teenagers to Alna, near Wiscasset, a year and a half ago. For years they had talked about moving to Alna, where his wife grew up, and often wondered “remind me again why we don’t live in Maine?” whenever they were stuck in traffic or faced with other hectic aspects of city life. When the pandemic canceled all of her concerts in New York and abroad, Saft saw no reason to stay in the New York area.
At this point in his career, he doesn’t need to be near a major city. His European commitments have resumed and he is adjusting to leaving Portland and changing flights at other airports. In October, he played in half a dozen European countries with acclaimed drummer Hamid Drake. He records in his home studio in Alna.
“I can’t fly to too many parts of the world from here without changing planes, but it’s a great compromise,” Saft said. “I’m thrilled to be here in Maine where there are so many super strong and talented musicians interested in discovering new music. It’s a very open scene.
Saft has recorded around forty albums, either with his own bands or as a sideman for others. Early in his career he worked with John Zorn, a composer and saxophonist who, like Saft, defies categorization and genre. In recent years he has recorded with well-known jazzmen like Morris, saxophonist Dave Liebman, bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Bobby Previte, as well as the late drummer Jerry Granelli, best known for playing on the soundtrack of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” with the Vince Guaraldi Trio.
Along with being known for his musical chops, Saft stands out for his versatility and eclectic selection of genres, said Dave Cantor, editor for jazz magazine DownBeat. In addition to playing jazz, reggae, rock and mid-20th century experimental music, he composed film scores, including for the 2005 documentary “Murderball,” about athletes competing in wheelchair rugby. .
“Saft is as likely to rehash an Ellington-Strayhorn composition as it is to play with avant-garde luminaries,” Cantor said. “He plays with a very light, flowing touch on the acoustic piano and can translate that to the keyboard, but still gets a little rowdy when needed.”
Cantor said Saft seems like a musician who chooses his tracks on the “whims of his own desire” but is such a smart and strong musician that “it almost always works”.
Saft grew up in and around New York in a conservative Jewish family and started playing the piano at the age of 3. His parents were not musicians – his father was a lawyer and his mother a writer – but encouraged his talent. He gave his first concert, in front of a large crowd in Bridgeport, Connecticut, when he was 4 years old. He studied for years with a Connecticut piano teacher named Burton Hatheway, whom he considers a mentor and who opened his eyes to the importance of physics in playing the piano.
“His ideas about technique were about physics, harnessing gravity to do all the work,” Saft said.
Although his early piano studies were largely centered on the interpretation of classical pieces, Saft grew up as a fan of all kinds of music. He said Hatheway encouraged his interest in pop music and he was soon playing The Beatles, Bob Marley, Bob Dylan and Stevie Wonder. He was also a fan of bands like Black Sabbath, ZZ Top and AC/DC and played his favorite rock songs by ear.
As a teenager, the father of a friend offered him in 1963 the album “Monk’s Dream” by jazz pianist Thelonious Monk. He says the album “changed the way I understood what you could do with improvised music” and led him to study jazz intensely. As a 16-year-old college student in New Haven, Connecticut, he regularly played gigs with professional jazz musicians.
He decided to study jazz at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, with its impressive jazz faculty, including bassist Cecil McBee, among others. At the same time, he enrolled at nearby Tufts University and earned a degree in English while earning his jazz performance degree from the New England Conservatory, both in 1993.
He got his first paid gig at Portland’s Cafe No, on Danforth Street on the edge of the Old Port, replacing one of his teachers who had been booked to play there but was unable to attend. After that he played several times at the club – which has long since closed – and was grateful for the way owner Paul Lichter treated him and the other young musicians.
“He paid us well and treated us with respect and let us develop our music,” Saft said. “You don’t see that anymore.”
In the mid-1990s, Saft was living in New York, where he met his wife Vanessa, an early childhood therapist and teacher as well as a musician, who grew up in Alna. They lived in the town for 14 years before moving to the Woodstock area, about two hours away. He got to play with “a lot of my heroes” in New York and started touring Europe, where he says there’s a bigger demand for live jazz.
A fan of all kinds of music, he says he probably saw Bob Dylan play 100 times and ZZ Top 30 to 40 times. In 2006, he released an album of Bob Dylan covers and a few years later he formed the New Zion Trio, a group that mixes reggae, dub, improvisation and classic jazz. He played on the 2007 album “Build a Nation” by hardcore punk pioneers Bad Brains.
In 2017, he released “Loneliness Road”, which featured Swallow, Previte and legendary rocker Iggy Pop, known as “the godfather of punk”, on vocals. His upcoming album “Jamie Saft Trio Plays Bill Evans” features the music of the famed jazz pianist and composer.
At Space in September, Saft performed solo for about an hour on a 1970s Fender Rhodes electric piano. He performed the 1948 piece “Dream” by avant-garde music icon John Cage, but then mixed his own improvisations with parts of other tracks by some artists who worked in the mid-20th century, including Monk’s “Ruby, My Dear”. , “After the Rain” by saxophone legend John Coltrane and “The Sun” by pianist and harpist Alice Coltrane (wife of John Coltrane).
Sometimes Saft’s improvisations were quiet and brooding. At other times, his notes exploded and clashed, hinting at his penchant for heavy metal and punk. He says his improvisation is based on “the structure, the architecture” of the pieces he uses and is aided by his years of playing with great musicians.
“I’m not interested in borders or limits or ways of playing,” Saft said. “I want the concert experience to be transcendent, to take me somewhere when I’m listening and when I’m playing.”
In October and November, he will be on tour with Hamid Drake as part of Drake’s “Turiya: Honoring Alice Coltrane” project. They have concerts scheduled in Germany, Macedonia, Finland, Poland, Italy, Portugal and Lithuania, as well as in US cities starting in April. He is also working on several new albums planned over the next year, including a solo piano recording with music by John Cage, Arnold Schoenberg, Charles Ives, Thelonious Monk and Billy Strayhorn, mixing classical and jazz compositions.
For his album Bill Evans, due out in November, he formed a trio with Maine musicians Jim Lyden on acoustic bass and Gary Gemmiti on drums. Gemmiti, who plays drums in rock band Rustic Overtones as well as roots reggae band Royal Hammer, met Saft last year when Saft invited him and other local musicians to play at him.
Gemmiti said he felt connected to Saft after “just a few bars” of playing together. He was impressed by Saft’s openness, both in the way it welcomes new collaborators and different types of music.
“He’s a guy who plays so many different styles and enjoys each one, tries to be authentic in all of them, and I feel the same,” said Gemmiti, who lives in Limerick. “He’s so open to what different players bring to the table.”