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Monday, December 7, 2015

Guitar Week - Day 1: Bajakian / Bjorkenheim / Hammond / MacKay / Valdes

Comes the end of the year ... a time of best of polls, the guilt and regret of not being able to cover all of the wonderful music that has come out during the year, and a guitar week!

By Paul Acquaro

Aram Bajakian - Music Inspired by the Color of Pomegranates (s/r, 2015) ****½

This is the soundscape for the day after. It doesn't really matter the day after what, rather it's the feeling of waking up to a day, the outside world remote and kept that way, the mind and body disengaged in the best way possible. This album captures that vague feeling so well, so stark, so reflective, yet at the same time so warm and human.

Guitarist Aram Bajakian was inspired to create this album after watching an Armenian movie The Color of Pomegranates. Feeling a connection with the film, he constructed this evocative soundtrack layering on acoustic and electric guitars. Relying on long repetitive classical motifs and thoughtful legato lines, the music is impossible not to float in and savor.

Varying pitch and intensity, sometimes evoking middle eastern flavored modes and using short melodic passages, Bajakian employs drone tones and rhythmic repetition to great effect. Listen to 'Nothing but Suffering' for an example, or the haunting 'Refuge'.

This is a beautiful recording with 21 short song vignettes presenting a range of emotion and approaches all showing off Bajakian at his contemplative best.

Raoul Bjorkenheim Ecstasy - Out of the Blue (Cuneiform, 2015) ****½

Guitarist Raoul Bjorkenheim's tone is pretty identifiable. It's laser pointed but fuzzy, tough but brittle, and his group Ecstasy brings out the best of his playing. In my review of the first album by the group, a reader suggested a close connection with Bjorkenheim's earlier with with his group Krakatau. Like with that ensemble, Bjorkenheim is working with a quartet that features a range of woodwinds and percussion instruments, listening to Matinale (ECM, 1994) from Krakatau, one can hear the biting guitar work juxtaposed with the world music influences. With Ecstasy, we hear the intervening years of working with the power trios of Scorch and with Blixt honing the focus and ferocity of his playing. Ectasy is the work of Bjorkenheim on guitar,  Pauli Lyytinen on saxophonist, Markku Ounaskari on drums, and Jori Huhtala on bass.

A long intro of guitar, bass and drums kicks off  'Heads & Tails', setting up the entrance of the saxophone. Lyytinen first appears shadowing Bjorkenheim's fluid lines before breaking off into a solo that seems to hold back just a bit. However, the restraint doesn't last long, soon Lyyntinen is on a mission, his playing contrasting with Bjorkenheim's fragmentary comping. 'Quintrille' is a modern jazz piece that takes off with a catchy riff and continues in a breezy jazz rock vein. A highlight of the album is 'Uptown', in which Bjorkenheim makes great use of his jagged tone over a skittering beat. The sax and guitar meet in hard charging a duel. The quick 'Roller Coaster' has a melody that reminds me a bit of a theme that could have appeared in a Return to Forever tune (I mean this a good way). Like the aforementioned work by Krakatau, there are moments here where the textures and rhythms of world music shine through, adding depth to the guitarists musical statements.

Bjorkenheim's latest delivers on a great jazz rock filled vision. Like the surreal cover of horse and rider entering a kitchen, the guitarist brings and element of surprise to the table in his juxtaposing of rock, jazz, and free elements.

Ross Hammond - Mean Crow (Prescott Records, 2015) ****

Sacremento based guitarist Ross Hammond, a prolific musician who released the refreshing solo acoustic album Flight earlier this year, just can't keep away from the harder stuff. His previous quartet and sextet albums have explored  the avant-garde and avant-rock and since the solo recording, he has released two improvised rockers including Lowburn with Steuart Liebig and Jon Bafus and now the lean trio Mean Crow.

Mean Crow is a meeting with two Washington DC based musicians that has yielded an energy filled noise drenched tape/digital release that is worth a half hour of your time time on earth to hear. It begins with dense smears of crunch and fervor, and only lets up to switch gears between dense noise, rapid fire single note lines.

Recorded live at the Back Alley in Washington DC during the Fall of 2014, the group is Hammond on guitar, Luke Stewart on bass and Nate Scheible on drums. After the expansive Humanity Suite and Flight, it's great to hear Hammond so fired up and fierce!

Hammond has taken an interesting approach to releasing music as well, setting up a subscription service where for $25 a year you get a deep dive into his work.

Bill MacKay's Darts and Arrows - Altamira (ears&eyes Records, 2015) ***½

A review of Bill MacKay's work appeared a few months back during a series on some duo releases. On that recording, he was very much in a reflective Americana mode, trading off with bassist Mat Lux. On this recording with his group Darts and Arrows, MacKay doesn't loose the reflective quality but there are certainly many more intense moments with a much expanded instrumentation.

Darts and Arrows is MacKay - guitar, Ben Boye - keys, Kyle Hernandez - bass, and Quin Kirchner - drums with guest appearances by Renee Baker (viola) & Nick Mazzarella (alto sax). Their overall sound is improve laden Post-Rock with a strong folk-rock infusion. The songs are melodic nuggets, more complex instrumentals than typical rock tunes and more inside than say a free-jazz blowing session. Sometimes slow and unfolding like the opening song, sometimes churning ('Demons'), and other times just absolutely perfect ('Look Out'), there is an engaging diversity among a fairly consistent sound.

MacKays' guitar sound is that lovely balance between clean and crunch and the Fender Rhodes adds a nice shimmer. Check out the Latin tinged 'Molasses Tragedy' for a great example of the album's nicely balanced and edgy mix.

Harvey Valdes - Roundabout (s/r, 2015) ****

I didn't expect this ... knowing New York based guitarist Harvey Valdes' work primarily from his album with Blaise Siwula and Gian Luigi Diana Tesla Coils which worked in a completely improvised and somewhat noisy setting. On Roundabout however, Valdes are treated to sublime finger picked arrangements of standards like 'All the Things You Are' (which really only offers whispers of the well worn tune) and 'In Your Own Sweet Way' by Dave Brubeck (whose lush unhurried arrangement begs repeat listenings).

On Roundabout, Valdes embraces the whole instrument in his arrangements. It's not so much the sense of space between the notes that one savors but rather the beautiful density of the chord voicings, droplets of harmony notes, and interweaving melodic lines.

This is one for the guitar aficionados, it's not out-there, but its carefully arranged songs are stunningly beautiful.


boxwalla said...

Nice to see the Mean Crow review. I was glad to be at that awesome gig. BTW, Nate's last name is spelled Scheible. Please correct. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

These reviews are always a great pleasure to read, so thanks!...just a note: for Darts & Arrows, MacKay is spelled like that with 2 'A's (not capped though :)

ears&eyes said...

Darts & Arrows' Altamira was released on indie label, ears&eyes Records.