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Interview: Jason Ajemian

Mercurial Free Jazz Bassist Hits Conundrum Music Hall Tonight
By Patrick Wall
Friday, June 20, 2014 |


Folklords, the latest fever-dream missive from mercurial bassist Jason Ajemian, begins with a suite, “Ask Mr. Blount Now,” that invokes the Christian name of interstellar jazz legend Sun Ra. Like Ra, Ajemian seems to abhor orthodoxy; his High Life ensemble draws on its members’ extensive jazz backgrounds, but has no single aesthetic, touching on virtually the entire history of jazz without dwelling on any particular era for very long. Folklords is appropriately peripatetic, burning through improvised sections that sound like imaginary conversations between Sun Ra and Sonic Youth. They also do a pretty crazy, pretty killer cover of Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball,” which you can see in the video at the top of this post.

With Ajemian and his wrecking crew playing Conundrum Music Hall tonight, Free Times caught up with the band leader over the phone in New York, as he prepared to leave for his current tour, discussing — among other things — Miley Cyrus, Sun Ra and the stuff that (fever) dreams are made of.

Jason Ajemian: You’re the one that started the fever dream stuff, I think.

Free Times: Oh, really? I remember writing that about a High Life show at Hunter-Gatherer years ago.

What: Jason Ajemian & the High Life
Where: Conundrum Music Hall, 626 Meeting St.
When: Friday, June 20, 9 p.m.
Price: $8
More Info: conundrum.us
Yeah. That phrase has been recycled; people use that a lot in different articles, relating my music to a fever dream. And it’s weird because I had a fever dream when I was a little kid that I had a hallucination and shit from. My brothers thought I was possessed because I was running around the house, like, screaming. It’s still really vivid. It’s one of the most vivid memories I have from when I was a child. I started hallucinating that there was grass up to my bed, and it was the day before Easter and there were eggs everywhere and there was a bunny. And I was telling my parents and my family once I had chilled out, once I was finally chilled out and I stopped running around the house and my mom had drawn me a cold bath and when I was going back to bed, I was telling my family to go mow the lawn, for the Easter bunny and stuff. It was weird. It’s funny because that always reminds me of that dream. And I don’t know if it was a dream. I don’t know what it was.

Is the subconscious something you actively try to channel when you’re improvising?

Yeah, certainly. Definitely. Yeah. Absolutely. So I have two records come out on May 20, the Folklords record on Delmark and this record called A Way A Land A Life [with Tony Malaby, Rob Mazurek and Chad Taylor], and that band’s all about dreams, you know? Free jazz is basically trying to channel that spirit. When I first started playing free jazz music, I remember seeing Joseph Jarman … no, who was it? Yeah, it was Joseph Jarman, s#!t. But I remember him talking about just the process of improvisation is getting away from your training, and training yourself to let go. You gotta get to the subconscious and get to some sort of purity that doesn’t have the reception to the references of, you know, society, knowledge, ideas or patterns. That’s the trick. And nowadays, improvisation is a form, free jazz is a form. Experimental music has become a form. And it’s as strict as, say, folk music. And I grew up playing bluegrass and folk music in Virginia. And the High Life stuff or starting to sing, you start to think about two relationships.

Improvised music is for people who have imaginations and they create a story. When I’m hearing instrumental music, that gives my mind space to wander because it’s abstract. Whereas lyrics and song, it becomes more like you’re telling a story in one way, but you’re also, as a performer, becoming a character, you know? You’re an actor portraying [a part]. And I’ve been getting into that lately. Like, I just sent you that “Wrecking Ball” video. The guy that masters all my records, I play parties for him, and a lot of times we do these jazz arrangements of pop tunes. And we map out these different arrangements for these parties. I’ve always loved songs. I’ve always loved lyrics. I’ve always felt that words suffered from music and music suffered from lyrics. But that’s how it goes, you know?

And how does that work with your process of “breath music,” where all the players keep time to their own internal clock?

I lived in a Zen temple right after college for a little while. And it was really interesting because the monks would tell me that the bass was kind of meditation. Right after this, my arms got all fucked up and I had to quit playing, and the monk kind of called it out. She’d make me get up 30 minutes before meditation and stretch, because I couldn’t sit still. And the breath process came out of that, the thought of how to make playing and practicing more of a meditative practice, rather than learning to play to an external clock. You play to your internal clock, and that sorta teleports, you know? If you let your mind wander and you go into your subconscious, you can’t really stay into the form of a song that was written 60 years ago in this whole other situation and place.

Being an improvisor is just like being any other kind of musician. It’s just a state of mind. Like, if I’m playing bluegrass music, I get my mind in a certain place. If I’m playing jazz music, I’m a certain kind of person, a certain kind of player. And that’s the beauty of being a bass player and a supporting instrument. You get to learn new [things], yeah. So the breath process opens you up to that. As people learn to trust themselves, we get these really crazy polyrhythms. It’s not like a click-track polyrhythm, but this amazing, really natural, comfortable rhythmic placement. Just this flow of things. And that’s affected everything I’ve done since then. The Folklords record is a huge part of that, because those are 36-inch lightbox scores with descriptions on how we get here and there and how we reference Mingus and Monk, Sun Ra, and native stuff, you know?

You bring up Sun Ra. Folklords was released in celebration of Sun Ra’s 100th birthday, and the first suite on the record, “Ask Mr. Blount Now,” references his given name, Herman Blount. Do you feel a particular connection to Sun Ra?

Man, I got into Sun Ra when I was in high school. My senior quote for my yearbook was a Sun Ra poem off of a Delmark record. So it’s crazy for me when I think about things like that, it’s crazy that now I’m making records on that label. Mingus and all that music I got really into in high school and through college and into being a jazz musician. And that chart [for the “Ask Mr. Blount Now” suite], we begin with “Ask Me Now,” the Thelonius Monk tune, just the chord changes. And I had this dream where Thelonius Monk was asking Sun Ra all these questions, you know, like, what’s wrong with humans and all that stuff. So those are the questions that I’m asking [in the song]. There were going to be two versions of that, “Ask Mr. Blount Now” and “Ask Sun Ra Now,” but we had, like, 15 minutes too much music. [laughs] And so the top part of the score is Monk’s tune “Hornin’ In.” So while I’m asking those questions, the horn player’s referencing that song, metaphorically tuning into the thoughts of Sun Ra, which are the satellites of spinners. So in the score, basically the eyeballs are just circles in sunglasses. That’s what the notation is. The score is visually Thelonius Monk wearing Sun Ra’s helmet.

You mentioned earlier that you started playing bluegrass and folk music growing up in Virginia. I’m wondering how much of that still informs your music today. It seems like High Life stuff, especially, expands to cover more than just the idioms of free jazz. I mean, you covered “Wrecking Ball.” Does that broaden your improvisatory language?

I guess for a while it was just kind of letting in the guilty pleasures, you know? I love folk music. I loved growing up on that music. But, you know, I was definitely sort of critical and pretentious, and I wanted my own thing. I mean, I had four older brothers and they were into their own things, and when I got into jazz, that was my thing. But then, eventually, I go home, and we have family reunions, we all come home and sing. My uncle, he writes these amazing songs, hilarious songs. We just did some for this party I threw up here. And my dad had these friends that would get together and play these old tunes, you know, “Wabash Cannonball” and “Old Slew Foot” and all those old [songs]. It’s like letting those things that have affected you. I don’t know, it’s weird. It’s funny how the free jazz community in Chicago reacted when I started singing. It’s almost like it was offensive.

People weren’t on board with it?

Well, I mean, like, half and half. But, yeah, I think the breath process opens you up [to improvisation]. Like, there are only 12 notes. It’s just styles. You can changes them so simply, and it’s music and it’s experiment. We put so much weight on what rap music is and what country music is. I think what I look for is genuineness and how they’re expressing that culture and how real it is. I think Matthew Shipp said something years ago about free jazz musicians, that we’re all fighting over chicken bones. We’re fighting over silliness and what kind of music people are making.

Hence covering “Wrecking Ball”?

[laughs] And covering “Wrecking Ball.” One of the reasons I started doing these [cover songs], and this is sort of like a guilty pleasure thing, but, like, I couldn’t imagine doing that song or, like, touring with Miley Cyrus or something stupid. But for this party last year, we played Rihanna’s “Diamonds,” and we’re doing these songs, but it’s like, we’re doing these songs at the Bowery Hotel and I met the girl that wrote “Diamonds” and his lady is friends with the person that wrote Usher’s “Climax.” And so you realize all these other people are the people who write these songs. And I’d never been able to separate the song and the artist. And with pop stars, you can do that because they don’t write the music. And so what you have is, yeah, that song will always forever be Miley Cyrus’, but that song is something totally different from her. So then it’s just, like, a song. And it’s, like, wow, these songs are good.

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