Pianist, producer, and keyboard mad scientist Jamie Saft has been lurking in all the cool corners of creative music for decades. A native New Yorker who went to Tufts University and then the New England Conservatory, he doesn’t really conform to any category. He has a rich history with the 1990s “downtown” scene at the Knitting Factory, playing and recording often with John Zorn. But his catalog also includes collaboration with the Beastie Boys and Bad Brains. He has recorded piano trio music that is quite consonant and free jazz improvisation with Wadada Leo Smith. Last year’s Blue Dream was a riveting outing for an acoustic jazz quartet featuring Bill McHenry’s tenor saxophone.
Hidden Corners returns to that format, but with a new band. Bradley Jones remains the solid acoustic bass player, but now Saft has drummer Hamid Drake (so often the inside-out partner to bassist William Parker) and veteran saxophonist Dave Liebman on hand. Each was chosen to mold this new music in a particular direction.
Saft connected with Liebman for a concert exploring the music of John Coltrane’s later period, when the late saxophone titan was exploring music that was simultaneously spiritual, meditative, and free. Liebman’s history includes both intensive study of Coltrane and meaningful apprenticeships with Coltrane’s peers: Miles Davis (with whom Liebman played in the trumpeter’s tumultuous, initially misunderstood ’70s electric-funk bands) and drummer Elvin Jones (with whom Liebman played urgent, driven music of considerable harmonic freedom). The music on Hidden Corners is not defined in some way by Coltrane, but it is decidedly in the camp of spiritual, meditative jazz with one foot back in the late 1960s or 1970s.
Saft has said that his music was formed partly by a considerable fascination with the spiritual jazz of album’s like Thembi by Pharoah Sanders. And he explicitly connects the music of that era with the music of Jewish mysticism that he explored with Zorn and with his own New Zion Trio.
Drake and his timeless drumming converge on this mysticism as well. Drake was born near New Orleans but moved to the Chicago area as a child, where he started working as a young musician with Fred Anderson and with other members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music. That led him to play with Archie Shepp and Don Cherry, developing music with spiritual dimensions both homegrown and global.
There is free playing here, although it doesn’t predominate. “Seven Are Double” is a free modal exercise, for example, set up by a single chord that Saft rumbles to life at the start of the performance. From there, the musicians each find their way, beginning from a harmonic center and then pushing outward, upward, whatever direction bring something more. The key to this kind of music (and maybe all music, really) is in the players listening as much as they play, developing their sense of direction collectively. And that, of course, is a kind of spirituality right here.
If Coltrane is a deity in this tradition, then “Yesternight” worships at the altar of his unavoidable version of “My Favorite Things”. Saft begins with a two-chord vamp in waltz time that rings like McCoy Tyner. Then Drake and Jones enter with the kind of soul and deep swing that Coltrane’s classic quartet mastered in the 1960s. Is there any doubt that Liebman will enter tune playing soprano saxophone, one that starts with a modal warble and then rises in a serpentine curl that pulls you into the air with it?
That is not to say that the quartet does not have its own sound. Liebman long ago found his sound on several horns, and his soprano playing here is more air-filled and textured than Trane’s. There’s not a nasal insistence but a feathered brush that paints in treble pastels and moves out beyond the mode with a playful sense of the modern. Drake plays in a way that feels Elvin Jones-ish, with a slightly behind-the-beat swing and Afro-Cuban accents. But he is ultimately more of a world musician and sufficiently influenced by his New Orleans heritage (through his idol Ed Blackwell, perhaps) that his waltz time also feels differently colored and embellished. Jones, lighter and more inherently melodic that Coltrane’s bass player, Jimmy Garrison, gets a lovely arco feature, playing the melody on “Turn at Every Moment”, a free time ballad. When Liebman enters this tune on soprano, he initially sounds a bit like Jones’s bowed bass, which tells you something about both player’s unique timbres.
If there is one player who sometimes disappears into a bit more anonymity, it is the leader. Saft’s personality as a pianist in this band is mild, molding itself around the needs of the other players. There are other recordings and other situations (and other keyboard instruments) that have brought out Saft’s wilder, more distinct playing. Hidden Corners finds him more of a binding agent than a major voice. On the straight swing of the title track, for example, he colors the proceedings lightly, with a Bill Evans touch. His solo is delicate and creative, using a spare approach in the upper register, then supplementing that sound with pastel chords that add drama. It is gorgeous but out of someone else’s bag. On “231 Gates”, we are treated to flute work—warbling and otherworldly, bending and sliding notes through a whooshing tone—that sounds like no one else but Liebman and a bass solo that similarly burbles and speaks, while Saft’s piano merely colors the atmosphere. Through most of Hidden Corners, Saft is the least singular voice.
Saft shines more clearly as a soloist on “Landrace”, a scrappy swinger where the whole band plays loose and easy. Drake is popping with shuffle and clicking accents, and Liebman uses his piping soprano tone to sound puckish and playful. Saft solos in dialogue with Drake, the two in telepathic lockstep throughout. Saft finally sounds more like himself while still in the tradition, mixing octave playing, block chords, superimposed harmonies, and rhythmic punch. As a pianist, the leader is not so much a distinctive stylist as a player who brings together many styles and options, all hands on deck, to create momentum. This improvisation embodies that.
For all the introspection and yearning in these spiritual/jazz jams, perhaps the band sounds best when it is stirring plenty of joy into the spirit. The opening tune, “Positive Way”, says it all. While it opens and closes with a stirring tremolo chord from Saft and the band, Drake and Jones soon move into a delicious groove reminiscent of Pharaoh Sanders’s classic “The Creator Has a Master Plan”—Afro-Cuban dance rhythms mixing with gospel glory. Liebman is at his garrulous best on tenor saxophone, crying in his upper register where the notes break up into harmonic pieces and then playing circular runs down lower. It is not so much a “jazz solo” that tells a story linearly as it is the whole band grooving in the moment. There’s no written melody, but the purpose has been composed. The band seeks the “way”, yes, but a smiling way.
Hidden Corners is the second release of 2019 that expressly seeks to revive the style of spiritual jazz style of the 1960s and 1970s, following Joey DeFrancesco’s In the Key of the Universe. Each, perhaps, was inspired by The Epic, Kamasi Washington’s three-CD tribute to the form that so many critics mistakenly saw as hip-hop-influenced. But, of course, it is equally likely that all three recordings simply grew out of a growing realization that this grooving, yearning branch of jazz—with its earthy urgency—has been neglected for decades, with the possible exception of its subtle influence on hip-hop via samples. Saft’s take on the music is more economical and concise than Washington’s and freer than DeFrancesco’s. Jamie Saft, as a convener and producer, gets the balance right.