Review by Brad Walseth
Bassist Ajemian has made somewhat a name for himself here in Chicago, primarily in the free jazz scene, for his work with many different groups, especially Rob Mazurek's "Exploding Star Orchestra" and the Chicago Underground Trio (see our review of their DVD, "Chronicle" here). With an appearance resembling Gary Oldman as Dracula in Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula or Johnny Depp as Inspector Abberline in From Hell, Ajemian certainly makes an impression whatever the occasion. Fortunately, his playing is just as interesting as his outward appearance, and he can flat out play the bass. Check out the opening scene of "Chronicle," where he was unexpectedly asked to open the concert with a lengthy bass solo, and in which he ferociously proceeds to play the skin off his fingers in response.
Ajemian's new "The Art of Dying" captures his working trio, "Smokeless Heat" who played together for fours years at local establishment, Rodan. Thankfully captured by Delmark, this recording documents the happy results of three fine musicians playing and improvising together at length - something that happens all to rarely in these days. Indeed, Ajemian has since relocated to NYC, while drummer Nori Tanaka has been deported (I'm not making this up). Saxophonist Tim Haldeman makes up the third member of the trio, while trumpeter Jamie Branch, guitarist Matt Schneider and Jason Adasiewicz on marimba add their textures to this intriguing recording.
Schneiderís lovely "With or Without the Universalator (Birdie's Dream)" opens up the album and opens some eyes immediately for those who may be expecting an in-your-face avant garde blow out. There is some of that included, but this warm straight-ahead tune sounds like an outtake from a Grant Green recording. Ajemian supplies the majority of the compositions, with Haldeman adding two. Songs like "Your Shirts" and "Miss O" and "Sackett's Harbor" are strong and mostly straight-ahead with, as expected, a more experimental flavor than most. "9 Car" and "U're The Guy (Keith Wood)" take a more "outside" path which allows the players, especially Haldeman, the opportunity to experiment, and they are up to the task, working together to produce interesting sonic landscapes. Haldeman is a true find, who deserves more exposure for his ability to move from the melodic to the gritty with equal success. Meanwhile, Tanaka proves a tasteful innovator with a kit full of appealing sounds, while Ajemianís playing is strong and his bowed bass adds to the tasty flavor. The guests, too shine, with all three becoming integral elements as the trio swells to larger proportions and sounds.
Great ideas throughout and well executed, but the highlight for me may be the album ending live improvisation performed on WMSE in Milwaukee. This incredible 23:54 work is as interesting a piece of improvised music as you will find and moves at a leisurely pace with Haldeman giving his sax a workout through the first 14 minutes before Ajemian and Tanaka kick it into high gear during the middle section, while the final four or five minutes slow down, speed up and mutate once again into a haunting, and powerfully abrupt climax. Compelling music created in a special moment in time when all three members were clearly functioning on the same wavelength: "The Art of Dying" is an apt goodbye; and it is not just a little sad to think that we may not hear this trio in Chicago much, if ever again in the future.