Jamie Saft has been a significant presence on RareNoiseRecords since the label's inception: as band leader on New Zion w. Cyro's Sunshine Seas (on piano, analogue keyboards, bass and guitar with percussionist Cyro Baptista) and on The New Standard (on piano and organ with bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Bobby Previte), on celebrated quartet collaborations with Wadada Leo Smith (Red Hill, on piano) and Roswell Rudd (Strength & Power, on piano), as well as on a number of deep free music collaborations involving Joe Morris (Slobber Pup, Plymouth, The Spanish Donkey, on organ and analogue keyboards).
Now, on Serenity Knolls, he stakes out some completely different territory. An intimate duo project with guitarist Bill Brovold, a former member of such New York no-wave bands as the Rhys Chatham Ensemble, the East Village Orchestra and the Zen Vikings, it features Saft alternating between playing dobro and lap steel on a set of 12 ambient type tunes with a distinctive heartland undercurrent to them.
An accomplished keyboardist-composer who has been widely acknowledged for his work with various John Zorn projects, including The Dreamers, Electric Masada and Moonchild, the Queens native and current resident of Kingston in upstate New York has nonetheless has maintained a longstanding relationship with the guitar. As he explains, "I've played guitar since I was a youth as well as bass guitar, so this isn't something new for me at all. In fact, my guitar playing is featured on many of my albums such as Breadcrumb Sins (Tzadik), Sunshine Seas (RareNoise) and Black Shabbis (Tzadik) as well as being prominently featured in my original score for the Oscar nominated film Murderball."
On Serenity Knolls, Saft is paired with the legendary improviser, woodworker, instrument builder and leader of Larval, an influential Detroit improvising post-rock ensemble. "I met Bill in upstate New York where we both currently live in the Hudson Valley," says Jamie. "Bill is a beautiful and diverse friend and it's a pleasure to improvise music with him."
On spacious tracks like "Sweet Grass," "Saddle Horn," "The Great American Bison" and the title track, Saft creates that high and lonesome feel with his expressive slide guitar playing. He switches to lap steel on the droning "Bemidji", "No Horse Seen" and the minor key "Greybull."
"I've been fascinated by slide guitar styles for many years," he says. "Initially I was exposed to these sounds through Bob Dylan's music, which quickly led me to the universes of country and bluegrass music. I wouldn't say I have specific role models for slide guitar - for me it is a means to produce sustained events from a guitar. I take a more orchestral approach to the instrument. I'm far from a great technician on these instruments. I'd never profess to be in the same league in any way as the legends of pedal steel and dobro. But to me, they are sonic tools to achieve a particular goal."
Recorded at Potterville International Sound in Kingston, New York and mixed there by Saft and his colleague Christian Castagno (the same engineer who co-produced and mixed 2016's Sunshine Seas), Serenity Knolls carries a compelling vibe created by Brovold's atmospheric guitar in combination with Saft's melodic gems on dobro and lap steel. "This concept came from improvisations Bill and I were doing at house parties," Saft explains. "Combining the ambient feeling of Bill's unprocessed big hollow body Guild guitar through a Silverface Fender Vibrolux amplifier and the liquid sound of the dobro and lap steel guitar through a 1950's Alamo Amplifier with subtle tape echo enhancements was the intent. We sought to capture something inspired by the American landscape - the Great American Bison, endless highways, Plains drifting - filtered through a distinctly psychedelic lens. It began with the idea of making music that was 'Country Ambient' and arrived at something of an alternative state of consciousness."
As for the evocative album title, Saft explains: "Serenity Knolls is both an ideal state of mind as well as the name of the rehab center where Jerry Garcia died." That perfectly captures both the serene nature and expansive, searching attitude heard throughout this beautiful free-flowing recording of strictly guitar music. Serenity Knolls is not only unique in Saft's oeuvre, it holds a unique place in the ever-expanding RareNoise catalog.
1. Sweet Grass
3. Saddle Horn
6. The Great American Bison
8. No Horse Seen
9. Splintering Wind
11. Serenity Knolls
12. Silent Midpoint