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Jamie Saft Special Quintet at Cornelia St. Café

Sean Patrick Fitzell By

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Jamie Saft
Cornelia St. Café
New York, NY
November 12, 2010

Perhaps better known for his electric keyboard work in genre-flouting projects, Jamie Saft also possesses a deep jazz sensibility and prodigious piano technique. It was these talents he sought to exercise with his "Special Quintet" for a 2-night, 4-set stand at Cornelia Street Café. Not stodgy or rote, the first set was firmly grounded in tradition but retained a sense of surprise.

Saft was joined by like-minded musicians who straddle the supposed inside/outside divide: saxophonist Bill McHenry, trumpeter Duane Eubanks, drummer Ben Perowsky, and late addition bassist Chris Lightcap. He's worked with them all in various settings, but this configuration was novel. Drawing from his own compositions and pieces by John Zorn and Bob Dylan that he's interpreted with his trio, Saft created a comfortable zone from which to expand with the added instrumentation.

They opened the set with his "Darqon" as a piano trio, and Saft flowed across the keys, prodded by Perowsky's crisp snare ruffs. The drummer's fleet ride cymbal and fills also abetted Eubanks' solo, which emerged from a trumpet/sax unison line. On his turn, McHenry alternated between staccato bursts and fluid runs that played off the rhythm section. Dylan's "Trouble" followed, again starting as a trio with a swanky, bluesy groove anchored by Lightcap's vamp. Saft evinced touch with trinkling keys interspersed with percussive rolling asides, then got inside the piano to pluck and strum its strings for added texture as the horns sparred on the melody. The saxophonist adeptly used breathy fluttering notes to contrast longer kinetic phrases, while the trumpeter dramatically bleated and sustained notes in counter.

After a somewhat tentative start, the horns cut loose from the repeating unison head of Zorn's "Sturiel." McHenry imparted a brief history of tenor—starting bluesy, he then spun boppish lines before acknowledging the avant by blowing into his leg as a mute. Eubanks stretched over Perowsky's clacking rims with some piercing, but not harsh, rounded high notes. When he seemed about to finish, the drummer quickened the tempo to spur a few more laps from the trumpet, before Saft took the baton and wove his way back to the head.

The pianist used his own "I See No Leader" as a springboard, raking the keys with a flash of hands, as quick tactical drum and cymbal accents goaded him along. Piano and drums continued their repartee, percolating under Eubanks' extended foray, staying unpredictable and giving him additional improv avenues. After some blustery, clipped retorts, McHenry built an impressive statement darting with or inverting the groove; the drama reached a crescendo as he spat frenetic machinegun blasts. A sturdy presence that bound the music, Lightcap flashed great tone and inflection while riffing off the song's progression during his spotlight.

The set ended just as the group seemed to establish rapport and let the music flow: an auspicious start to the weekend—and hopefully longer—for Saft's Special Quintet.

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