Anyone who can go from leading an avant-blues jam record to a free form rock-jazz one to traditional trio jazz within the course of 13 months, and make it astounding each time, has got to be a rather extraordinary musician. Meet that musician, keyboardist Jamie Saft.
The New Standard (due out May 20, 2014 by Rare Noise Records) is the first album under his name since 2011’s Borscht Belt Studies but just like those aforementioned collaborations with guitarist Joe Morris (Slobber Pup and Plymouth), Saft’s leadership among a group of leaders starts with his choice of veteran, like-minded collaborators. In this case, he chose electric bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Bobby Previte, forward-thinking musicians in their own right.
The words of that album title aren’t meant the same way Herbie Hancock intended when Hancock made an album of covers uncommon to jazz nearly two decades ago; Saft either wrote all the songs on his Standard or co-wrote them with Swallow and Previte. These are fairly basic melodies, so that isn’t the story here. The thing about The New Standard is what they do with the simple ingredients.
The common thread among many of Saft’s projects is Saft’s fondness for masterminding jams of consequence from the slightest of material, and even though the material here isn’t what I’d call slight, he and his rhythm section do a lot with it, and do so within a relatively tidy 4-7 minute song length range. “Clarissa,” for instance is a deceptively commonplace blues walking piano/bass/drums tune, but you quickly notice Swallow’s metronomic bass pulsations that makes it possible for Previte to loosen up quite a bit. Saft is sticking close to the harmony but he’s as funky as Gene Harris.
Saft plays his piano refreshingly loose throughout, easygoing during the waltzing “Minor Soul” and especially during “I See No Leader.” The hints of Oscar Peterson sprinkled throughout the record blossom into full glory for the blues-based but spunky melody found on “Step Lively.”
That all said, none of anything with these three happens in a vacuum, as everyone plays off each other in perfect symmetry. Swallow’s taut bass actually handles most of the timekeeping chores, and Previte is usually the one getting tunes off the ground: check out Previte’s introductory military drum figure that’s somewhat similar to Steve Gadd’s famous “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover” march. That gives Saft the fuel to stretch out with episodic flourishes and moments of peace on a melody that resembles a tango (“I See No Leader” features another inventive Previte drum intro).
Saft & Co. don’t only shine in the swing pieces; “Surrender The Chaise” is a dark-toned classically styled song perfectly suited for another one of Swallow’s sublime asides, this time standing alone with Saft and Previte backing out for a moment.
The organ never strays far from Saft and he uses it artfully and sometimes unconventionally for a handful of tracks. For “Clearing” he is employing the organ in a churchy, earthy way that derives its source from the poignant folk-rock of The Band. “Blue Shuffle” is accurately named, and Previte’s shuffle keeps this from being your basic greasy soul-jazz trio number. Saft’s B-3 playing isn’t ordinary, either, favoring rousing, heavy chords over single-line bop figures.
Gentler and much more melodic than Saft’s other recent outings, Jamie Saft with Swallow and Previte nevertheless finds ways to put an edge into the prosaic piano (or organ) trio. It’s just enough of an edge to make The New Standard vastly more compelling.