Dálava – The Book of Transfigurations (2017)

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feature photo: Emma Joelle

There’s a very original, compelling new idea attached every new project from Aram Bajakian, but one in particular worked so well, it earned an encore. The Book of Transfigurations (April 7, 2017 from Songlines Records) is a continuation of this guitarist, composer and arranger’s intriguing renderings of genuine Moravian folk music, brought to life also by the vocals of his wife, Julia Úlehla.

Together, they make up the primary members of Dálava, also the name of the 2014 album that brought this culturally vivid but little-known form of music with a Western flair to the masses. Taking a good concept and making it even better through creative arrangements that augment — not supersede — the original flavor of these traditional songs brought Dálava a lot of acclaim.

The Book of Transfigurations follows that same winning formula, again using transcriptions of Moravian folk songs left behind by Úlehla’s great-grandfather more than a century ago. And again, Bajakian undertakes the task of coming up with arrangements that does more than merely bring them to life, but informs them with his background in all manners of musical styles, from American blues and rock, to Middle Eastern music and classical. Still, this could not work at all without Úlehla, who sings in the style that perfectly fits the music, and her time spent in an Italian theater workshop as well as her Moravian lineage had to have been factors in her being eminently qualified to take on vocals that require nuance, control and some knowledge of the culture to execute right.

For their second bite at the apple, Úlehla and Bajakian turn to a different sort of instrumentation behind them. Gone are the violins, the glockenspiel and the gimbri from New Yorkers. In their place are a cello from Peggy Lee, acoustic and electric basses from Colin Cowan, accordion and all manner of keyboards from Tyson Naylor and drums and percussion courtesy of Dylan van der Schyff. These Vancouver-based jazz musicians and how they’re deployed give the second Dálava enough of a distinction from the first to more than justify another go around.

The meeting of East (Europe) and West is reconciled early on within “Ej Na Tej Skale Vysokej,” in Bajakian’s guitar that quickly goes from clipped notes to an overdriven jangle signaling the rest of the band to bring a swell of noise to the dramatic ending. “Dyz sem ja sel pres hory” which means “the rocks began to crumble” actually does rock with a huge backbeat, Naylor’s garage band Farfisa organ and Bajakian’s clanging guitar, but Úlehla’s animated vocal stays in the tradition; this performance would be a perfect addition to Quentin Tarantino’s next soundtrack.

Úlehla is backed only be Lee’s cello and Naylor’s accordion on the somber “Co ste si mamicko za dum stavjat dali,” where you might not understand the Czech language but the somber emotion can clearly be felt. “Na straznickem rynku,” which means “War” is ironically one of the most peaceful performances of the album, the heartfelt vocal backed sympathetically by cello, accordion and Bajakian’s gently arpeggiated guitar.

The circular melody of “Vyletela holubicka” builds from a hushed mood to a dense clamor with the layering of cello, an amped up Hofner bass and drums to go along with Bajakian’s harmony guitar part, ending as a swirling sonic storm akin to the Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”

An irregular meter pounded out announces “Pred nasim je zahradecka” and Bajakian’s dirty axe crashes in as Úlehla splits punk rocker and Eastern European folk singer personas right down the middle. An ominous “Okolo Hradisca vodenka tece” backs up the portentous feeling when Bajakian gathers steam and turns the song into a free-form metal frenzy.

A blend of the exotic with the familiar is always an interesting idea but doesn’t always make for interesting music. The first Dálava went beyond merely interesting, it was fully captivating. Even without the benefit of no expectations this time around, Julia Úlehla and Aram Bajakian’s The Book of Transfigurations manages to captivate, too.

For more info and to purchase, head on over to Dálava’s Bandcamp page.


S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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