Keyboardist Jamie Saft, drummer Craig Santiago, and bassist Brad Jones make up the New Zion Trio. The ensemble can be best understood as a substantive, far-ranging conversation: Each participant has a full voice, each listens, and together all participants shape and guide the flow of ideas.
New Zion is firmly planted in that rarefied lineage of spiritual jazz that draws its inspiration from the likes of Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders. Saft has worked with John Zorn for many years and is a key player in the cluster of musicians who helped usher in the movement known as Radical Jewish Culture. This New York-based federation can be loosely defined by its breezy eclecticism and emphatic shattering—but not total rejection—of convention: Think “Hava Nagilah” pureed with the Velvet Underground. Accordingly, the New Zion Trio has deep roots in a variety of musical traditions, such as jazz, reggae, ska, and dub. It also aims, in the words of Saft, to “push on to the next phase.”
That next phase can be heard in the threesome’s forthcoming album. Chaliwa, set for a summer release via Veal Records, is over an hour’s worth of “trancelike states and mysticism, Kabbalah, meditation,” as Saft describes it. “It’s this connection of rhythmic elements and the repetition of the drums and bass with roots reggae, and the dub side with this layer of spiritual improvisation. They’re all on that same path: the meditative aspects of the rhythmic trip of reggae—of the drums and the bass—and the meditative act of improvising. And they just become one in New Zion.”
Drummer Craig Santiago also has a long and eclectic musical resume, with roots that lie in hardcore. A deep-seated passion for reggae and ska has been apparent “since I’ve been playing music,” he says. His orientation toward “harder music” was upended by an epiphany in the form of “ska and rocksteady reggae. Once I heard the true trad ska, I stayed there and didn’t go back.” In the same vein, bassist Brad Jones brings to the group a “lifetime knowledge of reggae and dub and groove music that is really working with us,” Saft says. In addition to the core members’ contributions, Chaliwa is graced with some hypnotic vocals by guest H.R. of the iconic Bad Brains—another of the band’s influences.
Chaliwa was constructed using mostly acoustic instruments and, according to Saft, was “all played live—no overdubs, no editing, no computers, no nothing.” The intent was “a real analog, old-school sound. It was just so refreshing and sonically so much deeper in the analog environment,” which has “a warmth that the computer kills.”
“The digital environment,” Saft continues, “really just takes a picture that’s not always very flattering. It may be a broader spectrum of frequencies, but we may not like to hear some of those frequencies!” (“How come,” the redoubtable Keith Richards wrote in his recent autobiography, “I could get a great drum sound with one microphone, and now with 15 microphones I get a drum sound that’s like someone shitting on a tin roof?”)
The New Zion Trio strives for a more inviting sound. To Saft, the group is the culmination of “many years of making really difficult records that weren’t always accessible for a big audience. I was really looking to put something together that was just pleasing to everybody. It’s healing music.”
RICHARD KLIN is the author of Something to Say (Leapfrog Press, 2011).