Name: Jamie Saft
Occupation: Keyboardist, Producer
Current Release: Blue Dream with the Jamie Saft Quartet on RareNoise
Recommendations: Bunny Wailer- "Blackheart Man"
The magnum opus from the living legend and Original Wailer, this album represents the very best of the Roots Reggae and Rasta Philosophy. A transformative and deep album.
Ingmar Bergman- "Persona"
Perhaps my favorite film. Certainly one of the most influential films of all time. David Lynch drew on Persona directly in "Mulholland Drive" and other films. The use of score music in Persona is truly brilliant. This film is essential.
Website / Contact: If you enjoyed this interview with Jamie Saft, visit his homepage for current updates, biographical information and music.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What what is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I began playing piano at a very early age something like 3 years old. As a young person I was fairly obsessed with popular music of the time - the 1970's. This meant Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Bob Marley, Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Bunny Wailer, Peter Tosh, AC/DC, ZZ Top, Black Sabbath, & Michael Jackson. All these artists created transcendent music and a strong sense of freedom within song structure. Each put forth a transformational space that spoke to me even at a very young age. I knew then that the spiritual could be found in the music long before I had any idea what "spiritual" meant.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
I studied classical piano technique and composition from the beginning. I was fortunate to early in my life connect with a great mentor and teacher of mine named Burton Hatheway. Burton is a master technician of playing the piano as well as an accomplished composer. Though his focus was on classical music forms, he was extremely open to my interest in popular music. He showed me that in the great popular songs one can find the strongest architectures. We dissected the Beatles. He indulged me as I blasted Jimi Hendrix for him and together we appreciated the fine architecture in that music. Burton's understanding of both the physics of playing the piano and of the compositional elements that made great music were crucial in my musical development. I learned harmony, notation, chords, scales, while at the same time delving thoroughly into the physical aspects of achieving a great SOUND at the piano. Getting all these fundamentals in my head at such an early age allowed me to follow whatever musical path I chose. This led me to improvised musics of all types.
At age 12 or 13 a family friend turned me on to Thelonious Monk. This began a long term love of Jazz. Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, and Ornette Coleman exploded all notions of what music could be. I spent my time immersing myself in all types of music. This included playing along with my favorite records. I don't spend time transcribing things really. I just drop myself in the sonic universe of the music I love. That could be Alice Coltrane. It could be Charles Ives or The Meters or Jimi Hendrix. By diving into these critical musical pieces I developed my own language. A language born of all these elements but also one that co-existed within these spaces. Trying to approach something solid and fundamental.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
Making records has always been the dream - in a studio with real instruments and nice tools to capture those instruments. Recording studios can get rather pricey especially for developing artists. So I always tried to find ways to acquire the tools to make records on my own. As a teenager I procured a Tascam 4 track cassette recorder and some amplifiers, synthesizers, and guitars. This began a path to producing, recording, and making my own records. In my professional career, I've been extremely fortunate to be a musician on recording dates with so many legendary Jazz artists as well as virtuoso studio engineers. So when most musicians would go out on break, I'd go straight into the control room and start asking the engineer questions. And the greatest engineers keep no secrets - everyone shared techniques and methods with me.
I learned so much from legendary studio engineers like Joe Ferla and Christian Castagno. These masters shared so much technique and information with me. I saw both the tools needed to capture music in a studio environment and the methodology to manipulate the tools properly. Over the last 30 years I've been accumulating my own equipment. That led to my first studio build in the mid 90's in Brooklyn, NY. This studio was called "Frank Booth" after Dennis Hopper's "Blue Velvet" character. We made a whole slew of albums down in my dank basement in Brooklyn at Frank Booth, including dozens of releases with John Zorn and his Tzadik label, and most if not all of my own records during this fertile period. Frank Booth was just a small live room and a tiny control room. I'd sometimes stuff 8 musicians into that little live room. Yet through hard work and dedication we produced many amazing and magical albums from that tiny basement studio in Brooklyn.
In 2007 I moved with my wife Vanessa and our three kids from Brooklyn to the Hudson Valley in upstate NY. My studio here in the country is much larger but features many of the same instruments and production techniques used at Frank Booth. My new room "Potterville International Sound" is well tuned acoustically and built with proper studio construction techniques. And now, instead of a dungeness studio in the basement next to the boiler with no windows like I had in Brooklyn, I have big windows in all of the studio with trees, mountains, the dog, lots of deer, chickens, birds, and sunshine to look at as I work. The country here in upstate NY is a super inspiring place to make music. There's real "quiet" here - there's space around the brain to think and produce.
What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
As mentioned above, my first studio was really my 4- track recorder and home recording gear. Over time I purchased a number of more complex pro audio devices including analog microphone preamps, compressors, and equalizers, analog tape machines, as well as tube, ribbon, and dynamic microphones. Also I've been a power user of computer music recording platforms since the early days. Protools was really the game changing studio device after tape machines and analog tools. I combine analog and digital devices and formats to extract the best from each. Analog tape machines give a special warmth and sense of space. Digital devices allow manipulation on many new levels. Combining the two formats seems to get the job of recording music done quite efficiently. In the studio, I'm all about staying out of the way and simply letting music happen. Technology should never be the focus.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
Technology in my universe is really a means to capture moments of creative musical expression. It functions best in the service of preserving a musical moment. My musical instruments are much more precious to me than the audio gear though. I have a gorgeous 1966 Steinway L acoustic piano that was found, voiced, and regulated for me by Master Piano Technician Steve Greenstein of Vintage Piano Works in Accord, NY. It's a magical instrument - orchestral in timbre, action perfectly regulated, and in excellent physical condition. Steve says "a great piano talks back to you." This piano has that very magic.
I have a collection of vintage guitars and amplifiers many of which were procured through my good friend and Brooklyn guitars legend Jeff Bloch, owner of The Amp & Guitar Wellness Center - including Gibson, Marshall, Fender, Supro, Guild, Gretsch, Alamo, Magnatone, Ampeg, Acoustic. I have an incredible 1956 Hammond RT3 organ which was lovingly rebuilt by amp builder Jamie Simpson of Booya Amplifier Services in NJ. Simpson has of late also been maintaining the vast majority of my amplifiers and vintage electric keyboards. Even my studio equipment comes through personal relationships with master pro audio gear builders like Andrew Roberts of Purple Audio, Matt Marinelli of Coral Sound, & John Klett of Tech Mecca. Each of these pieces of music equipment serves as a tool for me to make records, to express musical ideas, and to facilitate musical collaborations with colleagues.
But without each of these wondrous humans I would not have such diverse and USEFUL tools to make music with. Each is passionate and works tirelessly to make these instruments sing. Without these hard working people I'd struggle with my tools. For me, the technology is simply a means to an end - it is the humans who build and maintain these tools that make this whole thing go.
Production tools, from instruments to complex software environments, contribute to the compositional process. How does this manifest itself in your work? Can you describe the co-authorship between yourself and your tools?
Instruments have occasionally inspired me over the years to write music in a certain way. But ideally music exists without being bound to one particular form or device. I try to always let the music to guide me, not the tools or the technology. And to be honest I have little to no time for "complex software environments." I let others more passionate about such things mine those areas. I loved Protools when it came out because it distilled the most useful parts of the more complex music recording programs into something with a simple, easy, intuitive interface. I could suddenly record music most any way I wanted! It was so easy to manipulate and difficult to mess things up too badly!!!