Sunday, March 16, 2014

CD Reviews: Aram Bajakian & John Zorn

Aram Bajakian
there were flowers also in hell
(Sanasar Records)

Guitarist Aram Bajakian says he didn't set out to make a blues album when he was putting together there were flowers also in hell. But the influence of the blues - specifically what an uncle used to play for a younger Bajakian on 1940s steel guitar - played a major role in this album.

To recap this New York-based guitarist's c.v., he has released an album on Tzadik with his guitar/bass/violin group Kef. He was also a member of Lou Reed's group up to the end of that guitarist's life. To prove that he has a delicate side to his playing, Bajakian has also worked with Diana Krall. As a leader, the guitarist seems to herald the next generation of avant guitarists, where the prickly attack of Ribot commingles with the lilt of Frisell, creating a new sound in the process.

Not knowing the blues connotation of the album, the double-time bounce of opener "Texas Cannonball" has an almost cartoonish quality at first. But as bassist Shahzad Ismaily and drummer Jerome Jennings give him a bouncy E, Bajakian shoots all manner of shrapnel out for a few choruses, before it downshifts into a dirty groove. This segues seamlessly into "Loutone" where the volume drops to the point where the trio is barely there, playing a groove that evokes a digital loop (with a bassline that comes close to the one in "All Blues") and brings it back up for a fitting climax. It has a loose, jam-in-the-studio quality to it, with a level of excitement that doesn't always come across in this kind of performance.

From there, the group touches on spaghetti western in "Requiem for 5 Pointz," as delivered by Ismaily's lonely sounding, echo-heavy bass, which kicks on the fuzz at the end. "Sweet Blue Eues" starts smooth and sensual before a couple tracks of Bajakian's picking get heavier. "Japanese Love Ballad" features muted guitar plucks between bluesy string bends, helping it live up to its title. In keeping with that mood, the album ends tenderly with "Julia," a piece for solo guitar that features a lot of tremolo, harmonics and bent strings. It, and the whole album, might not really be blues, but this music comes with the same amount of feeling felt in good blues.

John Zorn

Although the cover to this album credits John Zorn, the music actually comes from Abraxas, which also includes Bajakian. Led by bassist Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz they are playing a new set of "tribal rock" songs from Zorn's Book of Angels written for this unit. With Eyal Maoz as Bajakian's guitar foil and Kenny Grohowski on drums, they take this music in directions that are unpredictable yet very engrossing.

"Metapsychomagia" nearly covers all the stylistic bases as the opening track - with a Ventures twang, a little more Morricone suspense and heavy rock all coming together throughout in seven minutes. "Sacred Emblems" which immediately follows, has a melody that almost comes off like instrumental pop, with a country twang giving it accents and making it more engaging. The middle tracks get into more heavy, progressive rock. "Celestial Mechanism," in particular has Bajakian and Maoz playing some repetitive figures in unison, evoking thoughts of Robert Fripp. But even when one guitar yowls in the background behind the other's lead ("Squaring the Circle"), the music never collapses into free chaos. They really create suspense in the music by giving equal weight to both the foundation of the music and the frenzy that occurs on top.

Surprisingly - thought not necessarily, for a Zorn project - the volume dies down for two final tracks, ending the album on a gentle, thoughtful note. "Nameless God" turns off the distortion pedals for a clean delivery of shifting rhythms and lines. "Anima Mundi" has a repetitive lick that, like "Loutone," could be a looped pedal, but actually sounds too lifelike and precise to be a machine.  Saving both of these tracks for the end brings things full circle and helps to appreciate both the composer and the skill that Bajakian brings to his projects.


Mando Mama said...

Just enjoying catching up on all these posts. Your reviews a really a pleasure to read even if some of the recordings might be a challenge to the most open of ears.

Mando Mama said...

Just enjoying catching up on all these posts. Your reviews a really a pleasure to read even if some of the recordings might be a challenge to the most open of ears.