Over the last three decades, visionary keyboardist, producer and composer Jamie Saft has made a career out of reinvention. His genre-obliterating range is evidenced by the stunningly diverse innovators with whom he's collaborated - a list that includes John Zorn, Beastie Boys, Bad Brains, John Adams, Iggy Pop, Donovan, and The B-52s. Now, on his third RareNoise outing with avant-jazz greats Steve Swallow and Bobby Previte, Saft shifts his iconoclastic focus to the organ trio tradition. You Don't Know The Lifefinds the trio engaging in uniquely electrified explorations of original compositions, free improvisations, and generation-spanning standards.
"It's always such an honor and a pleasure to get to make music with masters like Steve Swallow and Bobby Previte." Saft says. "The sound of the Hammond organ really resonates with Steve's gorgeous sound and with Bobby's very unique tonal approach to the drums."
Saft, Swallow and Previte came together for the first time to record 2014's The New Standard, which featured a taste of Saft's Hammond work alongside his acoustic piano virtuosity. The session, at the keyboardist's own Potterville International Sound studio in Kingston, New York, was the first meeting for Saft and Swallow, though the bassist had worked with Previte for decades, and the drummer had given Saft some of his earliest opportunities. Their like-minded sense of adventure resulted in an instant, visceral chemistry, and the trio reconvened three years later for the all-piano date Loneliness Road, highlighted by three vocal contributions from punk icon Iggy Pop.
With You Don't Know The Life, they take another left turn into untraversed territory, leaving the acoustic piano behind to craft an organ-centered sound that is equal parts psychedelic soul, monolithic rock and definition-skirting jazz, fused together seamlessly in a unified voice that references the past as hints of profound memories or half-forgotten dreams while venturing fearlessly forward down shadowy, alluring hidden pathways.
While the trio is spearheaded by Saft, their music is undertaken with a truly collaborative spirit. The keyboardist initiates the material - in this case an eclectic blend of skeletal originals and Saft's singular take on what constitutes a standard. As he explains, "The term 'standards' to me covers a lot of ground: everything from traditional jazz standards, show tunes and great compositions from the jazz world, but also the popular music of my youth - ZZ Top, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder."
The pieces on You Don't Know The Life run the full expanse of that gamut. The album opens with a bona fide jazz classic, Bill Evans' "Re: Person I Knew." Ushered in by Previte's shuffling rhythm, Saft essays the tune on the Baldwin electric harpsichord. The rare but gorgeous sound has been used by such pop experimentalists as the Beatles and the Beach Boys, and in Saft's hands immediately unsettles the listener with an unusual sound somewhere between Hammond organ and electric guitar.
"Ode to a Green Frisbee" is a typically eccentric offering from the pen of trombonist/composer Roswell Rudd, who had passed away just weeks before You Don't Know The Life was recorded. Rudd was a pivotal figure for both Saft and Swallow; the former had collaborated with him near the end of Rudd's life, while Swallow had worked with him decades earlier, playing Dixieland jazz and accompanying piano giant Herbie Nichols.
"Roswell occupied a very particular place in the music," Swallow recalls. "He had his own little room in the house, way up in the attic somewhere. He had a really singular voice but was deeply aware of the historical context of the music. So if Roswell's in the air, then that sense of the music's grand procession over a century or so is in the air too, and you have to play that."
The title track is a late-60s nugget by guitar wizard Billy Gibbons' pre-ZZ Top psychedelic blues band, Moving Sidewalks. "That is one of the essential, critical pieces of music that formed my musical identity," Saft lauds. " Billy Gibbons is a master of his instrument in the same way that these great jazz masters are. I wanted to find tunes that were soulful, important pieces of music to me that would also resonate with Steve and Bobby. 'You Don't Know The Life' creates this trance-like space that I thought it would be just a perfect vehicle for the trio."
The track is also a prime example of Previte's consummate and endlessly creative arranging skills, a role he's undertaken with the unspoken agreement of the trio. "I immediately hear arrangements when I have music in front of me to mold," Previte says. "Without it being discussed, we've come to a working relationship where Jamie brings in these tunes and I pipe in because I just can't help myself. I think it brings something different to his tunes and to a lot of the free playing that we do."
A sly and subversive "Moonlight in Vermont" starts off in unexpectedly traditional fashion, suitable in sound and rhythm for an elegant ballroom before Previte's disruptive rhythms begin to take on a mind of their own. A wistful read of the Burt Bacharach / Hal David classic "Alfie" ends the album on an unironically lovely note, run through with Swallow's lyrical bass melodies.
Swallow is particularly drawn to Saft's minimal compositions, which he praises for being provocative enough to fuel them to travel improvisational paths while leaving plenty of space for them to veer off in unexpected directions. "Jamie is the architect of the building that our music inhabits," the bassist says, "but what's most attractive to me is that it's possible to move fluidly in the music pretty much anywhere you want at any given time and it seems to work. Unlike many writers I know, Jamie brings his music to the table and then runs away. He really doesn't care if we just rip his songs to shreds and reassemble them - in fact, he's a willing accomplice in doing that."
A pair of tunes were created in that fashion on the new album: an avalanche of sound known as "The Cloak," and "Stable Manifold," a prismatic refraction of a classic Hammond B3 soul-jazz groover. You Don't Know The Life also features three freely improvised excursions, that reveal the trio's gift for conjuring compelling structures in the moment: the brooding sludge of "Dark Squares," the cinematic tent-revival soul of "Water From Breath," and the airy transcendence of "The Break of the Flat Land." Saft explains, "Steve and Bobby are at such a high level, you don't have to give them anything. We have a beautiful friendship between us, so that just spills right out like a conversation in our improvising."
This time out, that conversation took place in a different setting than the trio's past meetings. Always conceiving of a project from the production standpoint as well as from a musical perspective, Saft chose to alter the landscape in which the recording took place. Stepping outside of his own home studio, he opted for Sear Sound, one of the last great recording studios in Manhattan. Founded by the ground-breaking engineer Walter Sear, the room has hosted notable recordings by the likes of David Bowie, John Lennon, Stevie Wonder, Björk, Lou Reed, Wayne Shorter, Steely Dan, John Zorn, and countless others.
"Sear Sound is one of the temples of producing music," Saft says. "Walter Sear was a master and an influence on thinking about how we capture music, and Sear Sound is one of the few rooms left where you can do that at the absolute highest level. Being in that room, you absolutely feel the history."
"The ghost of all the great music that's been played in that room over the years is definitely present," Swallow concurs. "It was kind of a shocking change in environment, and I think Jamie figured on that helping to move the center of the music a few feet off of where it had been before."
Throughout You Don't Know The Life, it's clear that some form of alchemy was achieved in the studio that day, whether as a result of the unparalleled artistry of the trio, the sum of each individual's voraciously searching personality, the spectral presence of the legendary voices who'd passed through Sear Sound before them - or, most likely, the combination of all of those uncommon factors.
Saft is quick to credit the limitless imaginations of his bandmates/mentors/collaborators for the enlivening spark that brings this vital music to such bold life. "Both of these guys have such a unique voice that when we improvise we redefine the parameters of what we do," he concludes. "Though they satisfy all the requirements of the particular musical situation, they never fall back on the obvious. Steve Swallow's mastery of lyrical soloing really stands out on this record. There's so much pure melody in his soloistic moments; you're hearing something from his deepest soul. Bobby Previte always strategizes something deeper than the obvious. He's a master of creating something new but tied to the history. That's why I'm so lucky to make records with these guys."
1. Re: Person I Know
2. Dark Squares
3. Water From Breath
4. You Don't Know The Life
5. Ode To A Green Frisbee
6. The Cloak
7. Stable Manifold
8. The Break Of The Flat Land
9. Moonlight In Vermont