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Borscht Belt Studies

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Album Review

Borscht Belt Studies is Jamie Saft's first record on Tzadik since 2009's stellar Black Shabbis, a death metal meditation on the historical persecution and homelessness of the Jewish people. Obviously, Borscht Belt Studies is stylistically different. Saft returns to more familiar territory here, playing only piano and Fender Rhodes throughout. He is accompanied by Ben Goldberg's clarinet on six of 11 cuts, and by his current group, the New Zion Trio with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Craig Santiago, on one. Saft divides the album into musical sections that alternate by cut. Some compositions are based on blues, jazz, and Yiddish melodies, some in modern composition and vanguard classical music, and the closing track in reggae! The set opens with "Issachar," with Saft on Rhodes playing a soulful jazz melody with Yiddish overtones with Goldberg, and vamping on the changes. This is contrasted with "Hellenville," an acoustic piano piece that delves into improvisation before resolving beautifully on variations of three sequential chords. "Pinkus" is a blues that Saft introduces on the Rhodes. His melodic invention, chord voicings, and harmonic restraint are feints when juxtaposed against his phrasing, colors, and the textural possibilities afforded by the instrument. When Goldberg enters, he extends Saft's lines almost exponentially. The most difficult piece here is "Jews for Joseph (Maneri)," but it is also one of the most satisfying, as a tribute to his advanced improvisation teacher. In duet with Goldberg, Saft explores various threads of microtonal improvisation based on Maneri's ideas, but he reflects back an extended harmonic line by paradoxically reining it in almost pointilistically; he moves that line further, almost imperceptibly, in increments, ending in a very different place than the point of origin. The dynamic exchanges between the duo in improvisation are instinctive. The set closes with "New Zion," the signature tune of Saft's new trio playing reggae jazz in near dub style (listen to Grenadier's rock-solid bassline). It's jazz all right, but it juxtaposes (with beautiful glissandi and ostinati) how close to reggae Yiddish folk song is as a form. It's a mysterious, labyrinthine piece that is a stunner in the end — it reflects the rest of Borscht Belt Studies beautifully.


Born: New York, NY [Queens]

Genre: Jazz

Years Active: '90s, '00s, '10s

Inspired keyboardist Jamie Saft started appearing on an increasing number of N.Y.C.-oriented jazz recordings during the '90s and well into the new millennium. Born in Queens, New York, Saft studied at the New England Conservatory of Music and Tufts University. At these schools, he studied with Paul Bley, Geri Allen, Cecil McBee, and Joe Maneri, in addition to having composer and "piano technical guru" (as Saft described him) Burton Hatheway as a mentor. In 1993, Saft returned to New York and has...
Full Bio

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