Internationally-acclaimed musician, composer and Alna resident Jamie Saft drops a lot of names. But for him, name dropping isn’t about being boastful. It doesn’t come from a place of ego. Saft has been fortunate to collaborate with masters of jazz, rock, new wave, funk, metal and more. And he wants to share the music and musicians that inspire him.
It’s a long list. Saft, a virtuoso piano and keyboard player, a composer, record producer, and session musician has worked with an array of iconic musicians, including Iggy Pop, whom he calls “one of the greatest front man voices of a rock band of all time.”
Add to the register Bad Brains, The Beastie Boys, The B-52’s, Les Claypool, Mad Season, The Original Meters, George Porter Jr., Rustic Overtones, London Souls, Eric Krasno, Charlie Hunter, Mighty Sam McClain, Joe Morris. John Zorn, John Adams, Laurie Anderson, Donovan, Antony and the Johnsons, Wadada Leo Smith, Roswell Rudd, Marshall Allen, Danny Ray Thompson, Dave Liebman, Joe Morris, Hamid Drake, Bobby Previte, Steve Swallow, Darryl Jenifer, Adam Yauch, HR, Jamaaladeen Tacuma, Chuck Hammer, and Cyro Baptista.
Saft was raised on a steady diet of Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley, ACDC, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, ZZ Top, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Bunny Wailer, and Peter Tosh.
“This was the music of my youth,” he said.
In his teenage years, Saft discovered Thelonious Monk and jazz.
“That opened up a whole new universe of sound. Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Alice Coltrane, Farrell Sanders, Bill Evans, of course Miles Davis. All the great threads of jazz,” he said.
Saft will draw from many of these influences during Jazz in the Woods, a concert to benefit Midcoast Conservancy from 4-6 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 28, at Hidden Valley Nature center in Jefferson.
In addition to Saft on keyboards, the trio features Stu Mahan on bass, and John Mettam on drums, with Vanessa Saft on vocals. Guest musicians, including saxophonist Bill McHenry, will also perform.
“My wife and I and our children have been enjoying Hidden Valley for a long, long time. I feel it’s an incredible resource for the community, for young people and for me as an artist. I find it so inspiring to be there. It’s a great honor to perform at this benefit.” he said.
Originally from Brooklyn, Saft recently moved his family from upstate New York to Alna. His wife was born and raised in the town.
“There’s such a great community here, of musicians and artists and craftsmen and I’ve always really felt like Maine values craftsmanship in a way that is sometimes lost in society. It’s wonderful to be back here as a musician and see this incredible community of very talented musicians living here in this beautiful place,” he said.
Saft performs in a number of combinations. “The piano trio and quartet have more similar books of music, drawing mostly from the jazz tradition and a lot of my original music is inspired by that tradition,” he said.
“But then I have these other groups like New Zion Trio using a totally different book of music, all my original music that is steeped in roots reggae combined with spiritual jazz of the ‘70s and elements of Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah,” he added.
Collaboration is at the heart of Saft’s career. “There’s so many different spaces to perform in and to present music, each with sort of a unique set of parameters. I find that in my writing for my groups, I write for the musician, not for particular instruments,” Saft said.
Saft has a broad spectrum of bands and music that he works with, ranging from music that’s familiar and accessible to music that’s more creative and that can often defy genre.
“Music transcends language,” Saft said. “It gets to something deeper, that anyone can understand. Music can be avant garde, in that it’s not necessarily commercially viable. But with trust in the transformational properties of music it can be accessed and listened to, and there’s some people who find the avant garde music to be really relaxing.”
One common element across Saft’s performances is the element of improvisation. He calls it central to his approach to music.
“And (improvisation) really comes, obviously, from the jazz,” he said.
Saft said he and the groups he performs with will often “improvise on other people’s music and transform it into our own. Then we use our own music to construct a sort of bigger arc of sound.”
“I’m not interested in doing just carbon copies of anybody’s music. They’ve done it. I only use other people’s music as a vehicle for improvising, for constructing a set of music, with my collaborators,” he added.
The Jamie Saft Trio recorded a 2006 album based on Bob Dylan’s music, “Trouble: The Jamie Saft Trio Plays Bob Dylan.”
According to Saft, “Bob Dylan is one of the great poets and lyricists of all time. The music has an incredible architecture to it. It’s constructed sometimes in service of the lyric, but I think the music also really stands on its own. I’ve always really felt that Bob’s music gets a little left behind in a way.
“It’s really quite brilliant and draws on a lot of the same sources that all the great music that I love draws on, the blues, American folk music, African music tradition. So many different sources went into Bob’s music. (He) was always changing his own music, reimagining and reinventing it, rewriting the lyrics. Dylan’s been changing the lyrics to ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ for decades. And it’s fascinating.”
Saft is still very much a student of his craft.
“I try and quiet myself, and listen and absorb from the masters,” Saft said. “For me a concert is always a learning experience. To see how the great masters put together a book of music and present it, how they navigate the pitfalls of performing.”
Saft said he used to buy front row seats to ZZ Top on eBay so he could sit right in front and watch and learn from them. He didn’t care what that cost.
“If it was an expensive lesson to sit in front of my musical heroes, I would pay any price for that. It was such an incredible lesson to watch them do their thing, and see how they construct that sound,” he said.
Saft’s accumulation of lessons learned from a life in music helped him build the set list for the Jazz in the Woods performance which includes music from Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, The Isley Brothers, Hendrix, and jazz pieces. The set will include both covers and original music.
“I hope people dance,” he said.
Jazz in the Woods takes place from 4-6 p.m., at Hidden Valley Nature Center in Jefferson.
Tickets to the event are $50, with all proceeds going to Midcoast Conservancy. To learn more about Saft and to buy tickets, go to midcoastconservancy.org.