How one Jewish keyboardist strives to fix the world

American musician Jamie Saft taps into Jewish spirituality, blues, jazz and other influences in the service of ‘tikkun olam’

Musician Jamie Saft is changing the world, one tune at a time. (Courtesy of Michael Didonna)
Musician Jamie Saft is changing the world, one tune at a time. (Courtesy of Michael Didonna)

For piano virtuoso and composer Jamie Saft, music is a means to help people feel happier and at peace. As Saft explains, “That is the deepest spiritual practice of which I can conceive.”

That winning approach has led Saft to collaborate with some of the music industry’s biggest names: the Beastie Boys, The B-52’s, John Zorn, Donovan and scores of others. On stage, Saft leads both the New Zion Trio and the Jamie Saft Trio and is a core member of a spate of bands, including Electric Masada, The Dreamers, Kingston Yard, Whoopie Pie, Swami LatePlate and many more.

His long list of credits includes composing original film scores for the Oscar nominated “Murderball” and the Sundance winner, “God Grew Tired Of Us,” and has scored for Nickelodeon, MTV, VH1, Vice TV, NFL Football, CBS and A&E. He runs the independent record label Veal Records as well as Potterville International Sound in Kingston, New York in the Hudson Valley where he lives with his wife and three children.

In this interview with The Times of Israel, Saft — who was raised in a strong Conservative Jewish household and attended Camp Ramah in New England for many years — shares more about his work and musical influences.

What is the essence of your music?

To constantly push forward to new realms in sound, I try and constantly redefine all parameters within my music at every moment of every day of my life. Music, and specifically making records, has always been my primary interest and focus.

‘I always try to use my selfish interest in making records in the service of tikkun olam’

I always try to use my selfish interest in making records in the service of the tikkun olam [the Jewish concept of “repairing the world”]. No matter the style, sound, or density of the music, it should always be put forth with the primary intent of making the world better or improving the world. I work to make everything I do musically have that guiding principle every day. Honoring and respecting the tradition while constantly pushing the music towards new areas is also important to me.

What can you tell us about your latest collaborations?

I’ve got a number of new albums that are particularly special to me. Just released on Clean Feed Records (Portugal) is “Ticonderoga” with Joe McPhee, Joe Morris and Charles Downs. Each of these musicians are legends of the improvised music world.

I also have a number of new releases coming out on RareNoise Records out of the UK, including the second release from Slobber Pup with Joe Morris, Mats Gustafson and Balazs Pandi, as well as a quartet album called “Strength & Power,” featuring trombone master Roswell Rudd, Trevor Dunn, Balazs Pandi and me.

Each one of these sessions taps the unique personalities of the ensemble members joined together in the brotherhood of “all in” improvising. Camaraderie and mutual respect allow for transcendent improvisations filled with deep and balanced architecture. These are rarefied opportunities for which I am extremely grateful.

You also recently collaborated on the Darshan Jewish musical project. How was that?

‘We created this unique marriage of Jewish spiritual music, rapping and hip-hop’

The Darshan project was a fascinating connection between Jewish spiritual realms, nigunim [traditional Jewish melodies], rhymes, hip-hop and more contemporary musical styles.

I saw a path to realizing this album in an organic, musician-based way that I felt really worked nicely for Shir and Eden’s music [Shir Yaakov Feit and Eden Pearlstein]. Eden’s rhythmic flow and forward trajectory really brought Shir’s songs to a new place. It was a pleasure helping them realize this through the use of a master drummer, Ben Perowsky, and electro-acoustic instruments. We created this unique marriage of Jewish spiritual music, rapping and hip-hop approach to song form, with real musicians playing instruments.

What are some of the best moments you’ve experienced in music?

Jamie Saft has collaborated with some of the biggest names in contemporary music, including the Beastie Boys, John Zorn and the B-52s. (Scott Irvine)
Jamie Saft has collaborated with some of the biggest names in contemporary music, including the Beastie Boys, John Zorn and the B-52s. (Scott Irvine)

Highlights of my career include playing, recording and collaborating with many of my greatest musical heroes. First I’d recognize John Zorn, the person who single-handedly informed us that all music, regardless of style, genre, or sound were deeply and thoroughly connected. Zorn changed not just one path, but all musical paths both for me and my contemporaries.

Second, it’s been an absolute honor and a privilege to work with the legends Bad Brains. Bad Brains also redefined so many musical parameters while smashing apart boundaries and borders. The architecture of Bad Brains’ music could and should be studied at universities; it is as rigorous a musical path as contemporary classical music and the deepest improvising.

‘Zorn changed not just one path, but all musical paths’

Third, I fell particularly fortunate to have made music as a trio with the great musical masters Steve Swallow and Bobby Previte. I feel extremely lucky to have made a record and toured with these musicians, who are at the absolute highest level as improvisers. Bobby hired me for some of my very first gigs and international tours when I first returned to New York after music school. It’s amazing to still be making music with him after more than 20 years.

What are some of your most innovative projects?

I lead a group of which I am particularly proud called New Zion Trio. We have released two records on my own independent record label Veal Records. “Fight Against Babylon” (2011) and “Chaliwa” (2013) are our first two releases. These albums explore the deep connections between many of my favorites, Roots Reggae and Dub styles, spiritual jazz of the 1970s, Kabbalah, Jewish mystical paths and trance-like states. We’ve been fortunate to perform at a number of great festivals and done tours all over the world with New Zion.

We have a new record I’ve just completed which I’m super excited about. It’s a collaboration with percussion Master Cyro Baptista. We also have special guest Vanessa Saft, my lovely wife, singing and co-writing the title track, “Sunshine Seas.” I’m very excited for the world to hear this album. We’ll tour Europe in fall 2016 and beyond to support the album.

What’s ahead for you?

I have a superb duo release coming out also on RareNoise records with my friend and colleague Bill Brovold. It explores Americana styles through a psychedelic lens with Bill on electric guitar and I play lap steel guitar.

And I’m particularly excited about the upcoming Bad Brains EP, recorded earlier this year as a live show in studio at the Woodstock Sessions. It’s a full on Bad Brains Reggae and Dub session recorded in front of a live audience in the studio. Featuring Bad Brains masters Doctor Know, Darryl Jenifer and Earl Hudson with Jamaican singer Jesse Royal and me on keyboards. It was an amazing event and the music was transcendent. I’m very excited for the world to hear it.

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