Jason Ajemian & the HighLife
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Jason Ajemian & the HighLife

New York City, New York, United States | INDIE

New York City, New York, United States | INDIE
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He might not have albums or videos scaling the charts, and he might be not selling out arenas, but Jason Ajemian can still be the envy of many colleagues in that it seems like he's always got a gig.

Besides leading The High Life, the five-piece band he'll bringing to Farm 255 on Sunday, the bassist-composer is part of acclaimed guitarist Marc Ribot's Sun Ship band, performs frequently with his friends in Hush Arbors and also holds membership in Born Heller, Joy Mega and LayAllOverIt.

He also is the principal of Who Cares How Long You Sink, a near-orchestra of players that Ajemian - who led the 32-piece ensemble on two albums - says are "devoted to a breath process of orchestration."

"I'm staying busy and it's good," Ajemian says. "I'm not working as much as when I was in Chicago, and now I'm doing more work on behalf of my own band, so I've been keeping busy with my own stuff ... I'm not sure how many bands I'm playing in - a handful."

Playing with Ribot (who first earned notice playing behind Tom Waits and was the first guitarist for last year's Grammy Award-winning album by Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant and Alison Krauss) is perhaps Ajemian's most high-profile (and best-paying) gig, and one he enjoys.

"I've been with (Ribot) since April," says Ajemian, who will play with the versatile guitarist in late August at the Willisau Jazz Festival in Switzerland. "The band is called Sun Ship, named after a record by John Coltrane. So we're playing Coltrane tunes and some of Marc's tunes. The band also includes (drummer) Chad Taylor and Mary Halvorson on guitar. It's pretty fun. Marc and Mary can really rip. It's an exciting group and I'm excited to work with (Ribot), because I've been a fan of his since his Tom Waits days."

Identified primarily as a jazz player, due in no small part to his associations with Ribot, saxophonist Ken Vandermark and trumpeter Jason Wick (who might be familiar to Athens audiences due to his collaborations with guitarist Dan Nettles), Ajemian is quick to point out that jazz is just one component of his work with The High Life, which advances his experiments in breath-based composition.

"With the big band, I had these specific breathing processes, which was an arrangement technique," he says. "I did some of the same stuff with LayAllOverIt. In The High Life, I'm using my poems to formulate songs, but the poems I write don't have any real form to them, like most singer-songwriters do.

"The music is about transitioning in and out of the poems. ... For the last two years I've been putting (breath-based composition) concepts into space, bringing it all together. There are a lot of reference points - some sections may sound punk, while others may sound like swing and others are spacial and textural. I'm bringing all these different things under one roof. I used to like to separate things, but now I'm bringing all my ideas into one."

Ajemian is no stranger to Athens, visiting the Classic City for the first time in 2004 (with the trio Triage) at a festival booked by Vandermark.

He's also been to town with Born Heller, Dragons 1976 and LayAllOverIt. He says he generally plays local dates with John Fernandes (The Olivia Tremor Control, Circulatory System, The Instruments).

Originally published in the Athens Banner-Herald on Tuesday, August 04, 2009 - Chris Starrs, Athens online


you can waste a world away

drift

float

scream - in selfness

one night - moment

and you can love

all that moves

universe - big expanse

love like light and stars

vibrate

(To be performed by Jason Ajemian)

It does seem, sometimes, that there are those to whom the planet sings. What distracts or annoys or goes unnoticed by the many somehow enriches the few. In spite of the fact that his most recent recording is entitled The Art of Dying, Jason Ajemian makes musical the fact of living and having lived.

Bassist and vocal artist Ajemian is currently leading or involved with about a dozen ensembles, ranging from duos to sextets, with members—like himself—working mostly in Chicago or New York. Each group makes music that exploits its size and instrumentation. And all of the groups play purely improvised music. For reasons not clear to this non-musician, a questionable barbed aggressiveness is a near-constant across the spectrum of improv. Since a player ostensibly claims not to know what he or she will be playing in two measures’ time, they too often use sheer volume and what they expect to sound unexpected to hold your attention. Maybe theirs, too. Ajemian’s music is different. In tempo and range and dynamics, what’s happening onstage with instruments is very similar to what’s happening on- and off-stage among the people—players and listeners included—in the room.

Ajemian is to the Ayler brothers what Gwendolyn Brooks is to Amiri Baraka. Less anger, more joy; similar message, different language.

“The conversational quality is that of the openness that defines it,” says Ajemian from Stockholm via e-mail. “Improvisation is that conversation between two musicians in a particular moment. But it’s like experimental music is a form now and it sounds a certain way. Improvisers and a lot of musicians find their form and how to improvise in a way that impresses someone and they do that, and the conversation gets lost because one improviser has an agenda. Like free jazz—it’s a form now, too, and it sounds a certain way.”

High Life is the name of the group Ajemian will be leading here next week. He says the members (Jacob Wick on trumpet, Peter Hanson on tenor saxophone, guitarist Owen Stewart-Robertson, and drummer Marc Riordan) perform with him in other ensembles. And just as each of those other ensembles exists in pursuit of particular musical goals, High Life gives musical context to Ajemian’s poetry.

“I had multiple groups because each one was working with a different concept,” says Ajemian. “‘This band does this and this band does that.’ I thought of groups and improvising in general as different states of mind. Like playing bluegrass or playing jazz music. The music is pretty much the same; the only thing different is how the musician approaches or thinks about the music.

“But lately I’ve been more interested in developing my voice in music that embodies all of these concepts. Figuring out what those compositions look like, so that I can bring musicians into my world of sound and music. I’ll still have multiple groups or I will compose music to isolate sounds and concepts as need be. High Life is pretty much a combination of all these concepts with an emphasis on the vocal music and reaching out to communicate rather than being so introspective and searching. The music is developed mostly from words I’ve written in my notebook.”

On a song called “Leaves Rainbow” (recorded with his ensemble Who Cares How Long You Sink), Ajemian’s poetry is both present and not. You hear discernible words spoken in English behind the group’s quiet, dissonant scales and harmonics. It’s the way you hear conversations when you’re trying to sleep off a fever. But the effect is mesmerizing. The disjointed words become notes, and the notes sounded in unison by reeds and metal percussion become words. Instead of imagining a melody, as you must with much improvised music, you imagine a conversation or an unsigned letter read aloud.

“I was never that impressed with being able to play a form,” he says. “That’s like craftsmanship. I’ve never felt the need to show someone that I can play this or that. To me the magic is in the unknown, the layers of life found outside of our consciousness or what we can mentally put into a space. I’m more impressed by nature than the concrete boxes society has chosen for living quarters. In general I’m more interested in what the spirit says than what the mind says. I feel that improvisation represents something closer to our true selves and our natural selves. The idea of being selfless and letting spontaneous, true moments exist is beautiful.

“I feel that my music comes from ideas—and particularly non-musical ideas in a way of discovering what those ideas could sound like. But I treat music as sound and try not to define it so much or say I’m doing this or I’m doing that. Whatever tools are necessary to create a feeling is what needs to be used.” - Chris Barret, Metro Pulse, Knoxville


Hey, we were warned.

Ross Taylor, the local jazz magnet (pun very much intended) who brings high-profile avant-garde acts to the Capital City, said he expected "kookiness" from Jason Ajemian and his newest outfit, the High Life.

And kooky it was.

Ajemian's Chicago-via-New York City quintet is perhaps the most experimental — the most out-there, if you will — of the groups Taylor's brought to the Capital City. Indeed, listening to Jason Ajemian and the High Life is like trying to decipher a fever dream, one in which words become notes, notes become colors and metallic thwaps become words.

If it sounds difficult to follow, it's because it is: According to the New Music collective, the music High Life performs is created by Ajemian via teh architectural drawing software AutoCAD, using “visual blueprints that dictate the flow and motion of a musical set as well as open the performers up to visual influences. The performers will have pictographic schematics representing both the overall flow of the set as well as close-ups of individual sections.”

Indeed, flow is what the High Life is all about. Over the course of a continuous hour, the quintet masterfully moved all over the sonic map, from acid rock to free jazz to Akron/Family-esque indie rock to glacial, doomy slowcore, with each movement punctuated by a total collapse of form. Like a fever dream, bits and strands of one sonic shape were pulled to make the next, ever evolving each sly groove into something new and radical.

As much as Ajemian's espoused that High Life's music is as much based on his poetry as it is architecture, it was slightly disappointing that it was difficult to make out what Ajemian was crooning about. But maybe what he was saying wasn't the point. What is the point is that High Life's spontaenous movement ebbed and flowed like a comfortable conversation. Except with, you know, trumpets.

In short: It was gorgeous. - Patrick Wall, Free Times, Columbia, SC


Discography

"Monsters & Animals" - Single (7")

"Let me get that Digital" - Album (CD)

Photos

Bio

Formed at the Harold Arts Residency in Ohio, Jason Ajemian pulls all of his previous conceptual musics together under a solid roof with The HighLife.
Ajemian creates scores in the architectural drafting program AutoCAD, which guide the musiciansthrough spaces and hallways of musical structures. His blueprints dictate the flow and motion of a musical set, opening the performers up to visual and descriptive influences, while leading them through a diverse musical landscape consisting of Ajemian’s orchestrated poems, American folk forms, Native American chants, Canadian sea shanties, Orbison, jazz expressive motion and balladry -- all filtered through the creative/improvised process in a unique communication of the moment.