[29 October 2013]
Every day, Jamie Saft becomes more like his mentor, the indefatigable—and incomparable—John Zorn. Like Zorn, he is ludicrously productive, aesthetically audacious and churns out albums that are as amazing as much for their consistency as their diversity.
Having an opportunity to simultaneously appraise these two new albums is almost too easy. As in, it’s simple to make this statement: The two releases could scarcely be more different, but each is fully satisfying in their unique ways.
A fully improvised session, Black Aces is at once an adventure and the inexorable result of similarly attuned musicians. A few words about these players: Jamie Saft has appeared (as leader or supporting cast) on too many albums to count, and those familiar with Zorn’s Tzadik label already understand—and appreciate—just how busy he’s been in his relatively brief, at least in mere human terms, career. Guitarist Joe Morris has been making albums and establishing his credentials for over 30 years, and is generally regarded as a jazz musician’s jazz legend. Trevor Dunn, perhaps best known for his work with genre-demolishing supergroup Mr. Bungle, is also now a veteran of the NYC downtown music scene, an integral component of multiple Tzadik releases. Finally, drummer Balazs Pandi, who hails from Budapest, brings his considerable skills to the table, comfortable playing ear-blasting metal as well as improvised grindcore.
A word or two about improvisation may be necessary. There is the relatively straightforward type where jazz musicians take skillful liberties with a readily recognized standard (think Coltrane and the ways he transformed “My Favorite Things”, especially in his incendiary live performances). Then there is the without-a-net, made up on the spot sort that makes some listeners ecstatic and others allergic. Put simply, only musicians with this much experience, musicians capable of attempting this can hope to pull it off. Saft and Morris have known each other for 20 years, and Saft describes his vision thusly: “I thought metal, hardcore and grindcore styles as a rhythmic underpinning to micro-tonal avant blues-rock would feature Joe’s guitar beautifully.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.
Black Aces is definitely the latter variety of spontaneous creation, and it is at once intimidating, but also a potentially intoxicating brew for the open-minded. Consider “Accuser”, the 27 (!) minute opening selection: it features the type of intensity and interplay faux jam bands kill to emulate. The collective establishes a groove and then work it from all angles. If all the predictable, predictably bland jamming one recalls from outdoor festivals is like unflavored tofu, Slobber Pup is cooking up a porterhouse, served bloody rare.
What does it sound like? There are elements of Painkiller (Zorn, again) and the beloved Last Exit (Joe Morris might be said to pick up where Sonny Sharrock left off), even early ‘70s Miles Davis, albeit filtered through molten tar. It also calls to mind, at times, Bobby Previte’s The Coalition of the Willing (from 2006, also featuring Saft), but it’s harder and edgier. Bassist Trevor Dunn is at home with harder and edgier, having worked with Fantomas as well as Zorn’s Electric Masada project (Saft, again).
So…what is it? Not really jazz, not necessarily metal, too refined for what we commonly call grindcore. It is what it is: it’s moments captured in 2013 that at times sound like 1969 or 1973 or 2050. It is uncompromising and kindly confrontational in a way that will remind you to remain grateful we still have artists like this amongst us.
New Zion Trio is another of Saft’s projects, and it’s wonderful to see it was not a one-off, since their first release, Fight Against Babylon (review here: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/149276-new-zion-trio-fight-against-babylon/) was so outstanding. An ostensibly straightforward ensemble, featuring Saft’s keyboards, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Craig Santiago, the trio manages to pull off a variety of sounds, ranging from narcotic lounge music (in a good way) to traditional piano jazz (think Bill Evans by way of Kingston) and darker-than-dread reggae meditations. On Chaliwa, the players double down on the dub, and the results are every bit as satisfying this time out.
To dispel any notions that this is dub-jazz indulgence, consider the fact that Bad Brains vocalist H.R. makes a guest appearance on standout track “Chant It Down”. For fans, like this one, who believe some of the best tracks Bad Brains cut were in a Rub-A-Dub style, this track is a stunning trip back to the future. To be certain, Saft & Co. have a serious knowledge of how reggae sounds and how it works. Most importantly, and what makes this material so rewarding, is how it feels.
Where Fight Against Babylon boasted discernible roots elements, the follow-up is a more focused, entrenched approach to instrumental reggae. At times it recalls a more pure mash-up of what Lee Perry got up to in his laboratory in the late ‘70s; at others it is reminiscent of the epic space jams from Prince Far I’s Cry Tuff Dub Encounter Chapter 3. It works as agreeable background music (again, in a good way), but is meant to be absorbed and internalized. Like the best music, it gets better the more you hear it. If you’ve not given New Zion Trio a try, now is the time to hear what everyone else is missing.
In closing, a few celebratory words about the ways the music industry has changed, for the better. While I’m not suggesting that Slobber Pup, or especially New Zion Trio couldn’t or wouldn’t have found a suitably supportive label ten (or twenty!) years ago, I maintain it’s unlikely. Now, musicians like Saft can—and do—bring colleagues together to record, without the agendas or idiocy of corporate middlemen. This is good for artists and it’s great for fans. Of course, the implicit message here is that we should feel obliged to support these notes from the underground any way possible, including—and especially—with our wallets.