you can waste a world away
scream - in selfness
one night - moment
and you can love
all that moves
universe - big expanse
love like light and stars
(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.”