Jazz keyboardist with no boundaries lands in Maine

Jamie Saft, acclaimed jazz pianist and composer, at his home in Alna. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Soon after he moved to Maine last year, jazz keyboardist Jamie Saft put in a call to the Casco Bay Tummlers, a Portland band that plays Jewish klezmer music.

Saft has built a reputation over the past 30 years for being one of the most versatile and skilled keyboardists in jazz and avant-garde music, playing with the best musicians in those genres as well as teaming with rockers Iggy Pop, Bad Brains and the B -52s, among many others. He’s lived most of that time in or within a couple of hours of New York City and usually plays in Europe several times a year.

But since taking up residence in the rural Lincoln County town of Alna, Saft has sought to play with local musicians and in local venues whenever he can. He’ll play with the Casco Bay Tummlers on Oct. 28 at Mayo Street Arts in Portland, and in November he’s releasing a new album called “Jamie Saft Trio Plays Bill Evans,” featuring Maine musicians. He played a benefit at Hidden Valley Nature Center in Jefferson in late August, and in early September he played Space on Congress Street, as the opener for jazz guitarist Joe Morris and saxophonist Ken Vandermark.

“It’s incredibly inspiring to see a musician of Jamie Saft’s stature and experience settle in 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 books concerts for Space. “I wouldn’t fault him at all if he just set up his studio in the sticks and worked from there, flying back and forth to Europe. But it was clear from the first conversation we had that he wants to be here. He wants to work with and hire local musicians.”

Jamie Saft, who built up a reputation as one of the most skilled and versatile keyboardists in jazz and avant-garde music, at his home in Alna. He moved to the rural town, where his wife grew up, last year. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

A WONDERFUL TRADE-OFF

Saft, 51, moved with his wife and three teenage children 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 frequently had asked each other “remind me again why we don’t live in Maine?” whenever they were stuck in traffic or dealing with other hectic aspects of urban life. When the pandemic canceled all his gigs in New York and abroad, Saft saw no reason to stay in the New York area.

At this stage in his career, he doesn’t need to be near a big city. His European engagements have started up again, and he’s adjusting to flying out of Portland and changing flights at other airports. In October he’s playing a half-dozen European countries with acclaimed drummer Hamid Drake. He’s been recording at his home studio in Alna.

“I can’t get to too many parts of the world from here without changing planes, but it’s a wonderful trade-off,” said Saft. “I’m thrilled to be here in Maine where there are so many super strong, talented musicians interested in discovering new music. It’s a very open scene.”

Saft has recorded some four dozen albums, either with his own groups or as a sideman for others. Early in his career, he worked with John Zorn, a composer and saxophone player who, like Saft, defies categorization and genres. In the past few years he’s been recording with well-known jazz players 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 for “A Charlie Brown Christmas” with the Vince Guaraldi Trio.

Besides being known for his musical chops, Saft stands out for his versatility and eclectic selection of genres, said Dave Cantor, a writer for the jazz magazine DownBeat. In addition to playing mid-20th century jazz, reggae, rock and experimental music, he composed film scores, including for the 2005 documentary “Murderball,” about athletes competing in wheelchair rugby.

“Saft’s as likely to cover an Ellington-Strayhorn composition as he is to perform with luminaries of the avant-garde,” Cantor said. “He plays with a really light, fluid touch on acoustic piano and can translate that to keyboard, but still get kind of rowdy when it’s called for.”

Cantor said Saft seems to be a musician who chose his pieces on the “whims of his own desire” but is such a smart and strong musician that “it pretty much always works.”

PIANO PROTEGE

Saft grew up in and around New York City in a conservative Jewish family and started playing piano when he was 3 years old. His parents were not musical – his father was a lawyer and his mother a writer – but encouraged his talent. He played his first concert, before a big crowd in Bridgeport, Connecticut, when he was 4. 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 all about physics, harnessing gravity to do all the work,” Saft said.

Although his early piano studies were largely centered around playing classical pieces, Saft grew up as a fan of all kinds of music. He said Hatheway encouraged his interest in pop music and soon he was 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.

When he was a teenager, a friend’s father gave him the 1963 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 set him to studying jazz intensely. As a 16-year-old high school student in New Haven, Connecticut, he was playing regular 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 in nearby Tufts University and got an English degree there while getting his jazz performance degree from the New England Conservatory, both in 1993.

He got his first paying gig at Portland’s Cafe No, on Danforth Street on the edge of the Old Port, filling in for a professor of his who had been booked to play there but couldn’t make it. After that he played the club – which has long since closed – several times 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.”

By the mid-1990s, Saft was living in New York City, 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 city 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 began touring Europe, where he says there’s a greater demand for live jazz.

Jamie Saft performs at Space in Portland in early September. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

NO BOUNDARIES

A fan of all kinds of music, he says he’s probably seen 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 forthcoming album “Jamie Saft Trio plays Bill Evans” features the music of the acclaimed jazz pianist and composer.

At Space in September, Saft played solo for about an hour, on a Fender Rhodes electric piano from the 1970s. He performed the 1948 piece “Dream” by avant-garde music icon John Cage, but then mixed his own improvisations in with parts of other tunes by some artists who worked in the mid-20th century, including “Ruby, My Dear” by Monk , “After the Rain” by saxophone legend John Coltrane, and “The Sun” by pianist and harpist Alice Coltrane (John Coltrane’s wife).

At times, Saft’s improvisations were quiet and moody. At other times, his notes exploded and banged together, hinting at his fondness for heavy metal and punk. He says his improvising is based on “the structure, the architecture” of the pieces he’s using and is aided by his years of playing with great musicians.

“I’m not interested in borders or boundaries or set ways of playing,” Saft said. “I want the concert experience to be transcendent, to take me somewhere when I listen and when I play.”

In October and November, he’ll be touring 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 US cities beginning in April. He’s 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 Bill Evans album, 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 the rock band Rustic Overtones as well as the roots reggae band Royal Hammer, met Saft last year when Saft invited him and other local musicians to play at his house.

Gemmiti said he felt connected with Saft after “just a few measures” of playing together. He’s been impressed with how open Saft is, both in the way he embraces new collaborators and different kinds of music.

“He’s a guy that plays so many different styles and enjoys each one, tries to be authentic in each one, and I feel the same way,” said Gemmiti, who lives in Limerick. “He’s just so open to what different players bring to the table.”


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