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Jason Ajemian's Smokeless Heat - The Art of Dying

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Artist: Jason Ajemian's Smokeless Heat

Album: The Art of Dying

Label: Delmark

Review date: Oct. 1, 2008

Despite pursuing a métier that can prize traditional performance approaches over experimentation – if you’re seeking tip money over grants – jazz bassist Jason Ajemian has built his young career on diversification. While grinding the workingman’s blade in quarters friendly to the outer space of the avant-garde (Chicago bars, New York art galleries) as well as several unusual stages (an Evanston, Illinois steakhouse), Ajemian has pursued approaches as diverse as his venues. His studio albums engage genres from Appalachian folk to film score, drone to musique concrete, while his improvisational sets offer a whirlwind tour through a bursting repertory.

The Art of Dying, Ajemian’s debut for Chicago jazz label Delmark, returns the incessantly forward-thinking ensemble leader back to a traditional jazz trio, dubbed Smokeless Heat. Though the trio isn’t his bread and butter, he commands this act as handily as he has large ensembles such as Who Cares How Long You Sink (where he led), Mandarin Movie and Exploding Star Orchestra (where he remained part of the cast), and an endless litany of duo and trio projects (Born Heller, Loversrock, Lay All Over It, A Cushicle, Dragons 1976, Chicago Underground Trio).

Ajemian and drummer Noritaka Tanaka comprise a formidable rhythm segment. Their seven-year collaboration has allowed them to experiment with different approaches, modes and genres. A collaborative repartee finds its strength in micro variations, whether in barely perceptible tonal shifts or rhythmic pushes and pulls. Tim Haldeman’s saxophone flourishes and the marimba and guitar lines by cameo players feel like adornment in comparison.

Track after track on The Art of Dying pushes toward revitalizing these forms, and the upshot is altogether lovely, a paean to mid-’60s Blue Note colors and textures. The ensemble is devotedly strict in the studio, the recording mix clarified to avoid making the sessions sound like a live show. By contrast, the 23-minute live radio set reeks of bonus material.

No, these are compositions, both in conception and execution. But unlike much of Ajemian’s other work, the pieces here are both slow and rhythmic in a way that evokes contemplative states: dreamlike reverie, contemplation of the eternal, self-definition and identity as warring forces. As its title suggests, the record confronts serious themes, not leavened by the spontaneity of improvisation, but pushed ever deeper by the group’s heuristic search for what Ajemian terms "complete emptiness" (as he writes in a rhapsodic set of accompanying liner notes).

Though his instrumental lineup works as a cool jazz ensemble, Ajemian clearly has other bearings. His side project experimentation with avant-garde folk and musique concrete betrays an obsession with stark minimalism that matches the weight of the existential explorations he describes in writing. At work among these players, the effect is gripping.

By Joel Calahan

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