Last night I went to hear guitarist Aram Bajakian playing as part of the “Lights Out Wednesdays” series at the China Cloud gallery/performance space on Main Street.
I was unfamiliar with Bajakian’s work, but I really should have known about him: he’s played with a diverse collection of popular, jazz, and experimental artists, ranging from the Barenaked Ladies and Diana Krall to Lou Reed and John Zorn. He also performs with his partner Julia Úlehla in Dálava, a project rooted in Moravian folk music.
Wednesday night’s show was split between an opening set in which Bajakian played solo and a trio set with bassist Colin Cowan and drummer Daniel Gaucher.
Being totally unfamilar with the musicians, I really had no expectations going into the show, and so tried to listen with as open a mind as possible. I was rewarded with first-rate improvised music that was fresh and exciting, but that revealed a deep commitment to tradition. The solo set began with Bajakian using a looping device to create an angular-sounding bed of distorted electric guitar riffs. After letting the bordering-on-atonality spaciness percolate for a few moments, Bajakian took an unexpected turn and started playing Gershwin’s “Summertime” against his loops, balancing a tune with deep roots in American popular music with cutting-edge contemporary improvisation. The next tune, a straight-up exercise in noise music featuring layers of distorted, atonal guitar, was followed by readings of two songs from different chapters of the Great American Songbook, “Stella by Starlight” and Stephen Foster’s “O Susanna.” Bajakian’s take on “Stella” began as a fairly straight-ahead chord-melody solo guitar reading, but gradually moved away from the tune into a freer space. The Foster tune reminded me somewhat of how Bill Frisell balances a profound respect for traditional Americana with an experimental ethos, using a relatively simple song as a springboard to cutting-edge improvisation.
The second set began with a Freddie King inspired blues, which was followed by probably my favourite song of the night, a minor-key tune that drew on a more “Eastern” sounding palette of sounds. (Full disclosure: I really enjoy string instrument music from southern and eastern Europe and central and western Asia, but have only a superficial knowledge of the vast wealth of traditions and styles of music that come from those parts of the world, so please forgive my vague description). This was followed by three tunes from the jazz repertoire, Coltrane’s “Impressions,” and, presumably in honour of his one hundredth birthday, Thelonious Monk’s “Misterioso” and “Epistrophy.”
The trio set was solid; I was impressed by how well the players seemed to be listening and reacting to each other. The band was unafraid to venture into free territory, but never lost their basic sense of interplay and swing. I was impressed by how Cowan’s bass lines balanced melody and groove with a sense of pushing the music into a more open space, and Gaucher excelled at maintaining a high level of energy; he’s a really imaginative player.
This was my first time going to the China Cloud. It’s a great space; comfortable and unpretentious, it’s a fantastic intimate venue that encourages close listening. I’m grateful for having been introduced to both a fantastic place to hear music in this city and, more importantly, a group of musicians I’m looking forward to hearing more from in the future.