Jamie Saft: Cutting Across Genres

Keyboardist Jamie Saft works with musicians from all genres
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“I’m so fortunate to have worked with legends from all different kinds of music,” keyboardist and composer Jamie Saft tells me from his studio in upstate New York. “Whether I’m playing with jazz masters like Steve Swallow or [hardcore punk band] the Bad Brains, I try to learn something every time.”

Born in New York City, Saft studied piano from an early age. “Starting from the age of seven, I was lucky to have a strong technical background,” he says. “I was trained classically as a pianist, and I was fortunate to work with Burton Hatheway, one of the great masters of technique. He taught the basic principles of physics as they applied to the piano. But early on, I realized that my ability to play music by ear went way beyond my reading skills. I got turned-on to people like [Thelonious] Monk, Miles [Davis] and [John] Coltrane when I was in high school. I thought Monk was the coolest thing I had ever heard, so I started gravitating away from classical music and more towards improvised music.”

Saft later headed to Massachusetts to continue his musical studies. “I went to school at New England Conservatory and Tufts University in Boston, where I did their five-year double degree program,” he continues. “It was there that I studied with many amazing music legends including Jimmy Giuffre, Cecil McBee, Joe Manieri, Geri Allen and Paul Bley. I got a jazz degree and moved to New York City in 1993. I was playing all sorts of things at that time. I’ve been interested in synthesizers, organ, Fender Rhodes, and all kinds of keyboards since I was a young kid. I got my first synth—a Roland Juno-106 when I was 13 years old, and I was always interested in synthesis, home recording, and computers. I really moved to New York with the idea that I wanted to play music with [saxophonist] John Zorn. I had become really obsessed with his band Naked City. That band just exploded the idea of genre, and showed me that all music was really one—that there were no boundaries—and that all types of music and styles could co-exist peacefully.”

An introduction to John Zorn would come to Saft from a seemingly unlikely place—through American Splendor writer Harvey Pekar. “Harvey was an incredible jazz writer, and also a huge proponent of Joe Maneri, one of my greatest teachers,” Saft explains. “He had called up Joe saying, ‘What should I listen to?’ Joe told him about a record I had made with the trumpeter Cuong Vu. And soon after, I got a call from Harvey Pekar saying, ‘Joe Maneri tells me you have an amazing record. Can you FedEx it to me?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ And the next day at around noon, the phone rang and my answering machine picked up. And it was John Zorn saying, ‘Hey Jamie. This is John Zorn. Harvey Pekar tells me you have an amazing record. Can you FedEx it to me?’ So suddenly my hero and someone I had dreamed of working with, was calling me. And that was the beginning of my working relationship with him, which has continued for 23 years.”

Saft is immersed in myriad musical projects of late. “Over the last few years, I’ve been fortunate to be making records for a new label out of the UK called Rare Noise,” he says. “We’ve done a bunch of records I’m particularly proud of, including a trio record with Steve Swallow on bass and Bobby Previte on drums. We did a record with legendary engineer Joe Ferla, going direct to analog 2-track here at my studio. That record did really well, and we just finished the follow-up to it. I also have a new record coming out with my New Zion Trio featuring special guest Cyro Baptista on percussion. For me, New Zion was an opportunity to combine some of the most important music of my life—reggae and dub with spiritual jazz of the 1970s from people like Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders. It also taps into things like Kabbalah and trance-like, meditative states.”

And what does Saft recommend to musicians hoping for a career as long and varied as his own? “Be open to any and all kinds of music,” he replies. “I like being as inclusive as possible in music. There’s always something amazing I haven’t heard, and I’m always learning.”