Aram Bajakian’s unquenchable thirst for knowledge about music — and art in general — has once again inspired a record that challenges us to open our own minds about art and music well outside the world of pop culture. The former Lou Reed guitarist and sometimes John Zorn associate found the kernel for his latest project Dolphy Formations by going back into his own history, as a young protégé of the late, great Yusef Lateef.
Going on sale November 15, 2016 through Sanasar Records, Dolphy Formations is a three-part composition Bajakian wrote that’s inspired by the “Synthetic Formations” Eric Dolphy gave to Dr. Lateef in the early 60s. Using the Formations as a starting point, Bajakian sought to find new ways that an ensemble can “improvise within a new concept of time, pitches and musical arch.” The end product is an improvised piece all right, but a minimalist, multi-sectioned improvised piece using precious few notes.
The true innovation though, comes in the instrumentation used to execute these ideas and how Bajakian executes them. His only two companions for this hour-long suite is Peggy Lee on cello and JP Carter on trumpet and they craft a symphonic drone. It’s clear from the first “Variation,” Bajakian’s steady, tube-y guitar and subtle pedal effects is key, driving the patient texturing that avant-classical leader Morton Feldman has made a career of doing. The guitar is precisely folded in with cello and trumpet in forging an orchestral-sized hum that thanks to the presence of Bajakian blurs that line of distinction between a string sonority and a brass one. Only occasionally — as around the nine minute mark — does that tone rise above the rest, only to ease back down to the murmur.
There are only three instruments at their disposal, but these tools are used together in imaginative ways. There’s Carter’s trumpet climbing out of the mist ninety seconds into “Variation 2,” and later you hear the infinite sawing of the cello contrasted with guitar feedback. Toward the end is a little guitar abrasion which though not particularly loud is still a little startling because it breaks up the relative stillness for a moment.
Higher notes are reached during the first part of “Variation 3,” with Carter’s horn occasionally portraying the sound of a wordless female vocal. Bajakian subtly coats on more ghostly resonance to thicken the aural footprint until his fuzz tone bubbles up to the top, coalescing right at the peak with Lee’s soaring cello. Just as discreetly, the final section is brought down to a soft dismount.
Few musicians are so versatile to thrive in so many arenas. Aram Bajakian goes even further in looking for new, little-explored arenas in which to thrive. Dolphy Formations is another stop on his fascinating musical odyssey, and who knows where it will take him next.