Jason Ajemian has often deployed his superlative bass playing in support of great ensembles like Rob Mazurek’s Chicago Underground Trio and Exploding Star Orchestra, among others. On The Art of Dying, however, he’s the leader guiding an ensemble of able improvisers through what proves to be a pleasant slice of the best contemporary jazz that the always exciting Chicago scene has to offer. The Art of Dying is also an introduction to its many supporting players, like tenor saxophonist Tim Haldeman, guitarist Matt Schneider, and drummer Noritaka Tanaka, each of whom turn out excellent, invigorating performances.
“Sackett’s Harbor” is a gorgeous, sullen ballad anchored by Jaime Branch’s trumpet, which penetrates the lazy flow of the piece with a deep resonance like a foghorn seeping through the mist. Matt Schneider on guitar and Jason Adasiewicz on marimba give the track an ever-flowing character as they glide across their notes in a dripping cascade. Schneider also has a starring role on “Miss O”, where his tenderly teased phrasing forms a nice intertwining duet with Haldeman’s sax, which emerges in the second half to engage the guitarist.
Engagement, interplay, these are the aspects of Smokeless Heat’s performance that are the most exciting, and it’s never more apparent than on the final track, a live performance of the group recorded for Milwaukee’s WMSE. This unnamed 23-minute long piece never outstays its welcome, always shifting and forging ahead to new ground, all the while showing off the rapport and camaraderie among the players. The Art of Dying is another fine product from a scene whose creative output seems inexhaustible.