H.R. of Bad Brains is Not Crazy, Insists Jamie Saft
Photo by Scott Irvine, c. 2011 Jamie Saft: Jewish Heavy Metal Mountain Man
With a monstrous, flowing, godlike beard, multi-instrumental guru Jamie Saft resembles a Hasidic mountain man who should be jamming on meaty blues licks with his beloved ZZ Top instead of the downtown avant-gardist and John Zorn ensemble vet he is reputed to be. The catch is, dude actually makes his home upstate, living a lone wolf existence on top of a mountain upstate in the middle of fuckin' nowhere.
It's there in relative seclusion where Saft hones his weapon of choice (as keys-master), operates his own record label (Veal Records) and obliterates a ridiculous number of stylistic musical shifts via his tons of daring projects, many of which embody his longtime bud Zorn's Radical Jewish Culture series vision via his Tzadik imprint.
April marks the first month of residencies at Zorn's Avenue C artist-friendly music hub The Stone and the jazz visionary tapped Saft to fill six nights; the bearded wonder naturally had a host of groups to pick 'n' choose from. While there won't be a performance of utterly devastating "Jewish Heavy Metal" in the form of Black Shabbis or triptastic improv space jazz with The Spanish Donkey, there will be apocalyptic psych-blues from Slobber Pup (who are celebrating a scorching new record, Black Aces), a Saft solo show under his Burning Genitals moniker and a duo collab with legendary drummer Jerry Granelli.
But the most anticipated gigs may be Saturday's record release shows for New Zion Trio's Chaliwa, the follow-up to 2011's stellar Fight Against Babylon. NZT (Saft on keys, acoustic bass-man Brad Jones and drummer Craig Santiago) shell out Heeb-flavored dub and reggae grooves and joining the festivities--like he did on Chaliwa--will be legendary Bad Brains' vocalist H.R. Saft played on Bad Brains' 2007 LP, Build A Nation, and now H.R. is returning the favor. Saft insists H.R.--maligned by erratic behavior at Bad Brains shows in recent years--is far from crazy. In fact, as Saft puts it, he's quite brilliant and will indeed show up to The Stone.
We caught up with Saft via e-mail at his reclusive Kingston abode to get the skinny on Zorn, H.R. and Bad Brains, Slobber Pup and the downtown scene.
Jamie Saft's Stone Residency begins tonight at The Stone and runs through Sunday, April 21. Slobber Pup plays two sets tonight, at 8 and 10. New Zion Trio's Chaliwa record release show with special guest H.R. happens on Saturday, April 20, with sets at 8 and 10 p.m.
How did you hook up with Zorn? You have tons of records on Tzadik and have played in many of his ensembles.
I was born in Flushing, Queens, in what was then a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. John Zorn and I came from the very same area of Flushing, just blocks from each other. He is of course almost 20 years my senior, so I did not know him in my youth. I grew up in NYC and New Haven, Conn., and went to New England Conservatory and Tufts in Boston. During my time at NEC, I studied extensively with the great master Joe Maneri. Many years of intense study with Joe changed the way I approached music completely. On moving back to New York City in 1993, I made a record as a co-leader with Cuong Vu called Ragged Jack. The writer Harvey Pekar was at the time a great champion of Joe Maneri's music and work. Harvey had asked Joe if there was any new music he should investigate and Joe told Harvey about our record. Harvey called me up and asked me to FedEx him a copy. So I went right to FedEx and sent him off a copy of Ragged Jack. The next day I get a message from John Zorn saying, "Harvey Pekar tells me you have an amazing record I need to check out. Can you please FedEx me a copy?" So of course, back I went to mail John a copy of the album. Twenty-four hours later, I get another phone message from John stating, "Saft, thanks for the beautiful record. Check is in the mail, the album will be out in two months. Call Ikue to sort the cover art."
And thus began my work with John Zorn. Soon after he began calling me for session work on his records, as well as a number of film scores and music for television. I've been working extensively with John since 1993 as a member of Electric Masada, The Dreamers, as well as an "A-Team" Cobra member.
So, although you live upstate now, you were part of the "downtown scene?
I, of course, played extensively at the Knitting Factory (old and Leonard Street new), The Cooler, and the mighty Tonic. I lived in Brooklyn from 1993 to 2007, and in 2007 I moved up to the Catskills near Kingston. So, yes, you could say I was part of the
"downtown Scene," if you must ...
You've had a lot of records released by Tzadik as part of the "Radical Jewish Culture" series. What was your upbringing and how did you arrive at those sounds?
I was raised a Conservative Jew in the New York area. Any Jewish overtones in my music are just a direct reflection of my experience growing up Jewish in the modern world of NYC and beyond. I don't suppress that influence in my music, nor do I overtly choose to feature it. It's a natural part of my experience, just as Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley, ZZ Top, Black Sabbath and AC/DC were a crucial part of my musical world. All of these influences can be seen in my work. I was not raised on traditional Klezmer music, I was raised on R&B, reggae, rock, and heavy metal. All this music is what shaped my experience of growing up in New York and thus became part of my vocabulary.