- Fionn Reilly
Today is a triumphant day for Jamie Saft. "I finally sold this album I made with [bassist and drummer] Steve Swallow and Bobby Previte," he beams, an infectious smile slicing through the thick nest of his impressive beard. "We recorded [the album, titled The New Standard] in my studio a while ago. It's an amazing record, but it took a really long time to find the right label. And then I had to work out the deal. So I just signed off on that this morning, and it feels really, really great." His phone vibrates with a text alert. "'Bank transfer done,' says the keyboardist. "Awesome!" And so it's Saft who's generously picking up the tab today, which is by no means the first successful day in the 43-year-old musician's career.
Saft was born in Flushing, Queens. Although his family wasn't a musical one—his father is an attorney; his mother, a journalist, wrote for the New York Times—Saft's earliest memories are those of being fascinated with music. "My folks like to tell this story about me when I was super young at my aunt's wedding and me just being transfixed by the band," he says. "I was totally obsessed with the piano, and I started learning the keyboard when I was, like, two-and-a-half or three years old. When I was four I played in front of almost 4,000 people, as part of a concert of music by [composer and educator] Elie Siegmeister." Saft attended high school in nearby New Haven, Connecticut, and although jazz would come to form the foundation of his own music, it was hard rock that ruled his home speakers. "Black Sabbath, AC/DC, ZZ Top, Judas Priest—those were my bands," says Saft. "I was playing classical as part of my lessons, but that wasn't really what I was listening to. I kept things separated, and I was starting to get bored with learning all these written pieces. Even though jazz was also part of my studies, I guess I looked at it then more as just being part of the history of piano music. But I had this friend whose father was a really deep jazz fan who'd seen Miles, Charlie Parker, Coltrane, everybody. So we'd hang out over at his place and his dad would play us all these amazing progressive and spiritual jazz albums. That's when I started improvising and finding my voice. I even ended up doing an arrangement of Pharaoh Sanders's 'Thembi' for my high school jazz band."
For his higher learning, Saft went to Boston, double-majoring at Tufts and the New England Conservatory of Music, where he studied with piano greats Paul Bley, Geri Allen, Cecil McBee, and Burton Hatheway, as well as saxophonist Joe Maneri. He also made a life-altering discovery in the music of revolutionary New York saxophonist, composer, and band leader John Zorn. "It was the peak time of [Zorn's band] Naked City, and that stuff really blew me away," says Saft. "In that band I heard all of these disparate threads of the music I'd been digging just coming together—out jazz, death metal, hardcore, experimental ambient and classical stuff. I lived right underneath Seth Putnam, who was the singer for Anal Cunt [grindcore legends; also known as, simply, A.C.], but I didn't really know him and I'd never heard of his band. Naked City played in Boston and I went to see them, and instead of Yamatsuka Eye from the Boredoms, their usual singer back then, it turned out for that gig it was Seth who was the singer! Just this totally weird coincidence." But it was only the first coincidence that would serve to pull Saft deeper into Zorn's whirling musical vortex.