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Jamie Saft’s New Zion Trio

The genre-bending musician channels the notion of ‘Zion’ through  reggae-dub

Jake Marmer
January 08, 2013
Jamie Saft(Duclism)
Jamie Saft(Duclism)

This past Sunday January 6th, I went to see the performance of Jamie’s Saft’s New Zion Trio at the Cornelia Street Café. Jamie Saft, now in his early 40s and very long-bearded, is generally known for his jazz records on Tzadik label, and various collaborations with Tzadik’s producer, John Zorn, the legendary avant-garde composer and saxophonist. Generally gravitating towards jazz, Saft has easily moved across genres as diverse as heavy metal, klezmer, noise, and even put out a tribute album to Bob Dylan. Rather than genre-hoping, however, this nomadicism reflected an exploration of attitudes, philosophical platforms, as this latest project, New Zion Trio, came to reflect as well. Here are a few notes from the concert.

At one point last night, as I looked around, nearly everyone crammed in the basement of Cornelia Street Café had their eyes closed, swaying over their cocktails and silenced smart-phones, as Jamie Saft’s latest project, the New Zion Trio was tearing through the finale of their set. The band–comprising of Craig Santiago on drums, Brad Jones on the upright bass, and Saft himself on piano and synth–leans towards the experimental reggae-dub sound, but at that particular moment, they were playing a piece called “Pincus”, one Saft’s klezmer-inspired compositions. With dub treatment, the tune was given fantastic, blurry shape, belonging less to specific musical tradition than an urge, a feeling, an image.

Over the decades, a number of non-Caribbean bands have adopted the reggae sound, many of them, commercializing and fetishizing the music, diluting the traditional, folky strain of it–think UB40 or the particularly unfortunate case of Matisyahu, with his ill-fitting Patois inflections. The music’s great appeal, as underscored by its connection to Rastafarianism, is spirituality–worship, praise, and chanting. Saft’s band approaches the music with a great deal of respect, and rather than co-opting it, builds on the particular introspective lens it offers. Keeping reggae’s trademark “gasping” rhythm, Saft uses unusual, jazz-like chords; he often surges into incredibly long, panoramic phrases on the piano, which in their melodic structures and emotional uproar are more reminiscent of certain Western classical music. Jazz improvisations and blues are there as well, and a whole lot more, all hovering above the thick layers of sound, propelled by the rhythm section.

During most of the set, the band dug into the material off their second album which will be released this April. The fact that reggae-punk legend HR of the Bad Brains band has joined the New Zion Trio on the studio recording, makes the release all the more anticipated.

Reggae, at all points, directs its participants towards mythic “Zion” which, in Rastafarian tradition is more of a mental state than a physical location. Needless to say, it is a particularly loaded term for Jewish audiences, and Saft’s naming of the band thus was a weighty statement of its own. Where or what Saft’s New Zion might be is a question for any listener, but I sat at the Cornelia Street Café last night, I was certainly transported somewhere – out of New York’s winter, the subway ride, thoughts of the weekend’s impending finale–towards a certain other state being, enclosed in music.

Jake Marmer is Tablet’s poetry critic. He is the author of Cosmic Diaspora (2020), The Neighbor Out of Sound (2018) and Jazz Talmud (2012). He has also released two jazz-klezmer-poetry records: Purple Tentacles of Thought and Desire (2020, with Cosmic Diaspora Trio), and Hermeneutic Stomp (2013).

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