Thursday, April 22, 2010

The High Life and the Sub-Conscious

Last night I caught a performance by Jason Ajemian and The High Life at Issue Project Room in Brooklyn. The band, a conglomerate of New York and Chicago musicians, has been on tour for about a month now to promote their new album ("Let me get that Digital"), and they will continue to perform through the rest of April.

The High Life’s show at Issue Project Room was not only a great performance, but it was also an excellent example of the art of programming. They played continuously for about an hour, and it was one of those rare occasions where the longer the performance lasted, the more convincing the performance was. In the beginning of the show I was amused, if a bit skeptical. By the end, I felt like I had experienced something truly special.

The ensemble slid from one stylistic bent to another, from sea shanty to rock to free jazz, to name a few. I felt as though I were being guided through different rooms within the subconscious – mine or The High Life’s or Jason Ajemian’s – and it turns out that these “rooms” are more literal than one might expect. The musical scores are arranged like blueprints for a house, with entranceways and exits.

The most consistent thread within the group’s set was perhaps Jason Ajemian’s voice, acting as a narrator throughout the journey (his voice was occasionally joined by the voices of the entire band). He yelped and belted lyrics, and fragments of lyrics, beckoning the listener through the hallways of his music. Jason’s vocal delivery was reminiscent of Captain Beefheart. In fact, the tunes themselves occasionally reminded me of the Magic Band, with their off-kilter looping rhythms, and their oscillation from one meme to another and back.

One thing that surprised me was that the pastiche of styles never really felt ironic. It was never insular in that fashion – it led the listener in and not out, despite the fact that the soil was always shifting under one’s feet.

All of this musical surrealism would not have gone off as well as it did without the talent of The High Life’s musicians. They are all excellent instrumentalists and improvisers, and have projects of their own that are very much worth checking out.

Many bands will describe their sound by simply listing their iPod playlist and not sound like half of the artists they claim to channel. The High Life is not one of them. They perform a bizarre and wonderful collection of songs that a mere “shuffle” key can’t replicate. Don’t miss them next time they visit a performance space near you.

Jason Ajemian and The High Life is:

Jason Ajemian: bass, vox
Jacob Wick: trumpet, vox
Peter Hanson: saxophone, vox
Owen Stewart-Robertson: guitar, vox
Marc Riordan: drums, vox

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Joe Morris/Nate Wooley/Dominic Lash @ Douglass St.

At long last, a new post!

On Sunday night, I had the pleasure of hearing an excellent set by Joe Morris, Nate Wooley, and Dominic Lash at the Douglass Street Music Collective in Brooklyn. Joe and Nate have been working together for a little while now, and the addition of Dominic on bass was a real treat – he traveled all the way from the U.K. for this performance.

The set of three extended improvisations was one of the most balanced and nuanced I’ve heard in a while. All three players are masters at their instruments, but there was never the feeling that any one of them was trying to be the “leader.” Moments where only one instrument was sounding did not come off as a solo but rather as the logical progression of the musical conversation – all but one of the voices in the room die down and that one voice is simply continuing its story.

The music produced was absolutely a sum of its parts. Joe Morris, whose career spans decades, continues to reinvent his own playing as well as the nature of the avant-guitar itself. Impromptu “preparations” – adding an elastic band to the neck, running brass cylinders over the strings – allowed for a widened palate of sound. And the effectiveness of these preparations was owed completely to Mr. Morris’s quick musical intuition. Dominic Lash is the rare bassist who seems completely at home both with and without the bow. An incredibly virtuosic and naturally musical player, he’s someone you must hear the next time he’s in the U.S. (or you’re in Europe). And of course, there’s Nate Wooley. From my perspective as a trumpeter and improviser, it’s easy to see why he’s one of the most in-demand performers of modern improv. The guy has prodigious technique, but he never plays as though he has something to prove (a rare thing indeed to find in a trumpet player). Probably the most impressive thing about Nate is that he can play quietly and really commit to that dynamic. He was always blending into the texture of the group, occasionally peeking out from within.

The trio’s music resembled a kind of modern folk music, with its collective spirit and an overall sound that develops directly from the “act of playing.” It was a truly engaging experience. Let’s hope they make a recording or go on tour sometime in the near future.