Apr 15, 2020 9:06 PM
When keyboardist Jamie Saft talks about his bond with drummer Bobby Previte and bassist Steve Swallow, the word “incredible” comes up a lot. You definitely can hear that sparkling rapport on the trio’s latest disc, You Don’t Know The Life (RareNoise), on which the three explore a provocative batch of songs that include cherry-picked covers, such as Bill Evans’ “Re: Person I Knew” and John Blackburn and Karl Suessdorf’s “Moonlight In Vermont,” alongside captivating originals, such as “Water From Beneath” and “The Break Of The Flat Land.” With hints of 1960s psychedelia underscored by modern jazz wit, the new album bewitches, then transports listeners to a harmonically rich, melodically savvy realm of superb—and often subtle—improvisational possibilities.
The following has been edited for length and clarity.
This is your third time recording with Steve Swallow and Bobby Previte as a unit. What attracts you to their musicality—individually and as a rhythm section?
Both are master storytellers. They just have this incredible range of experience—not just musical, but life experiences. These are wise people. It’s always fascinating talking with them; I always try to listen and learn from people of such high stature.
[Together] they are just an effortless rhythm section. They are so connected; they flow so easily. It’s really a reflection of longstanding friendship; the music just flows out of that. You can do anything with a rhythm section like Steve and Bobby. They are always there to meet you in whatever direction you turn. But they will never box you in as an improviser. That is an incredible skill—to create that feeling as if anything is possible.
You’re a walking encyclopedia when it comes to music, regardless of idiom or genre. Talk about curating some of the non-originals on This Is The Life.
All of the music was very carefully chosen. Each one of those songs has a specific connection to us. The standards, such as “Moonlight In Vermont” and “Alfie,” are songs that we’ve been living with since we were young and have played in different forms.
On some of those standards, there is actually no soloing going on. The improvising is more in the arrangements and the feelings that happen moment to moment within these melodies that we know so well. A song like “Re: A Person I Knew” is really close to me. I’ve always been a huge fan of Bill Evans; Steve actually played with Bill Evans. But he doesn’t know of any recordings he’s on with Bill. So, that’s a very moving piece of information for me.
We also have Roswell Rudd’s “Ode To A Green Frisbee.” Roswell was a dear friend and mentor of mine.
Can you talk about Roswell’s impact on you as a musician and explain why you chose to include that particular song?
About 12 years ago, I moved from Brooklyn to the Hudson Valley. Roswell and his wife, Verna Gillis, were neighbors of mine. I’m so fortunate to have spent so much quality time with the two of them. They are just both heroes of the music. Roswell played with Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, John Tchicai. He was a true encyclopedia of the history of music. He was a student of Herbie Nichols; he wrote an incredible book of unheard Herbie Nichols tunes. Roswell was a composer and collaborator of musicians from many different countries and different paths of music.
I was so lucky to have Roswell so close by. I would play duos with him. He would teach me his music and Herbie Nichols’ music. It was such an honor to play with him and to hang with him so closely. I was fortunate to record Roswell many times at my studio. Most importantly, he was the most positive human being you could ever meet.
Every time you talked with Roswell, he gave you a soul-saving hug. He would just grab you, hug you and smile. He would just be so comforting. That really extended to his music, which was so powerful, important and genuine.
After Roswell passed, Verna Gillis started collecting his compositions, then digitizing them. She gave musicians who were close to Roswell access to that book of compositions. I was going through the book, thinking about Roswell, who had taught me a bunch of his tunes, including “Pazuzu,” an amazing tune dedicated to Max Roach, and “Ode To A Green Frisbee,” which really jumped out at me. In that melody, you can really hear Roswell’s voice and his blaring trombone sound. The song was written in 1977 and dedicated to Carla Bley, who is, of course, Steve’s partner. So, that tune called for us to play it for this record.
You mentioned recording Roswell at your studio. But for this record, you chose New York’s Sear Sound studio.
Sear Sound is one of the great temples of making records. It’s an incredible room, founded by Walter Sear, who was a legend in music, and a master at capturing the music and getting it on record. The equipment there is at an incredibly high level. It’s also a beautifully tuned room with amazing recording gear and beautiful musical instruments. It’s a room that I’ve been working out of for a very long time. I’ve made a lot of a great records there. It’s the room where Stevie Wonder recorded Songs In The Key Of Life, John Lennon worked on Double Fantasy—this is a serious room to record. The last couple of records we did in my studio, which is a great room. At Sear Sound, you can achieve incredible sonic magic. It allowed us to flow with the music and not have to worry about any of the technical stuff.
What’s the process of composing with Steve and Bobby?
These are just things that developed within the moment. When you work with people like Bobby and Steve, you don’t really need to tell them anything. It’s free improvising, but it’s certainly based in collective experiences and what we like to talk about. We have rich conversations outside of music about life, movies, espresso, coffee, traveling, television and other stuff. That just flows right into the improvising.
That doesn’t mean we just do whatever we chose. People like Bobby and Steve see this longer arc of creating a piece of improvised music. It’s not just moment-to-moment of us repeating our ideas and mimicking each other. It’s more like a Bach fugue, where everybody is sort of improvising on parallel paths together and sometimes we interact vertically or horizontally. DB
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