You need to spend some time with this music. Fortunately, you will want to spend time with it. There are at least two excellent reasons for this: one, you will need to allow it ample opportunity to work its magic; two, you will need sufficient time to formulate an appropriate response for your friends when they inquire about what you’re listening to these days. An album called Kef you will say. What? By a guy named Aram Bajakian. Who? Bajakian is a Brooklyn guitarist whose debut, Kef has just been released by John Zorn’s Tzadik label. (Mentioning Tzadik should immediately clear up any questions about quality or street cred. It should also indicate that, like everything else from Tzadik, this material will be unique and ambitious, if not immediately accessible.)
For folks who have not heard of Zorn or Tzadik, the label – now well over a decade old – has helped discover and promote music that falls far outside the so-called mainstream. While Zorn’s influential quartet, Masada, can easily be described as jazz (and lazily described as Ornette Coleman meets Klezmer), much of the work Zorn and those recording on his label do is difficult to categorize. Naturally, this is a very good thing: this is music not different for the sake of being difficult or outré; rather, it is ambitious in scope and very outward looking. As such, it’s not uncommon to hear the never-passé stylings of bebop alongside classical and world music (speaking of lazy and inadequate descriptions … ), often in the same composition. Simply put, Tzadik represents the essence of avant-garde, adventurous and averse to convention. It also serves as a reminder for anyone bored or seeking reassurance, that there are (many) smaller labels releasing inspired music it would take a lifetime to listen to.
Kef is named for an Armenian type of dance music known for incorporating traditional and western instruments. In other words, the sort of thing ideally suited for Tzadik. Bajakian is joined by Tom Swafford on violin and Shanir Blumenkranz on bass. The absence of drums is novel and audacious, but considering how much some of this material shreds, it is almost revelatory. Blumenkranz is quickly bolstering his own legendary credentials, having already appeared on more than two dozen Tzadik releases.
From the first note, the traditional, non-Western influence is obvious, but, by the second track, the jazz and rock sensibility is front and center. There is an aggressive, almost punkish vibe that also will sound familiar to fans of the Tzadik label. The guitar playing on Kef inevitably calls to mind his label-mates Jon Madof and especially Yoshie Fruchter (who employs the violin in his quartet Pitom) but more than anyone, his runs, at turns angular, muscular and – when necessary – brutal, recall Marc Ribot. This is intended as the highest form of praise.
Kef will remind listeners of Madof’s quartet Rashanim in part because both guitarists are brilliant but also boast the considerable prowess of Blumenkranz. Kef will also draw favourable comparison to Pitom because of the violin (and again, the indefatigable Blumenkranz), as well as the energy that pivots between punk and hardcore, if only for seconds at a time. Bajakian is quite obviously a product of his culture and times, and he is able to infuse each song with a variety of cultural signposts and points of departure. The fifth track, “Wroclaw”, breezes along like an Armenian folk song, albeit one played in dark nightclub or a sweltering New York subway. This is postmodern chamber jazz that swings proficiently with an always-apparent and quite convincing Eastern vibe: fractured folk tales, if you like.
There are softer, subtle moments, like the acoustic opener “Pear Tree” or the gorgeous “Pineta”. There are some scorchers, like “Sepastia” and “Raki”, both of which showcase the band’s agility. It is during the more intense moments where the absence of a drummer is most noticeable—and impressive. The lack of grounding and punctuation would leave a less capable ensemble without the necessary punch and bottom; Bajakian’s band uses the extra space as an opening for interaction, and each musician takes turns steering the ship and soaring above the surface. There is a distinct structure unifying each song, and while the collection coalesces to a logical flow, each tune could be isolated and examined. After several listens you might even find yourself humming some of these melodies (does anyone hum anymore?).
There are no unsatisfactory tracks to be found here, and while some may dazzle or impress more than others, the last two, “48 Days” and “La Rota”, warrant special mention. Alternately serene and sombre, these closing statements comprise an elegiac, deeply moving conclusion. There is beautiful music and there is moving music (the best, of course, can combine the two), and then there is music that goes to that other place which is at once inscrutable and oddly familiar. By the time the last notes have been played it will occur to the tuned-in listener that something significant is happening here. This is a different type of music.
Music remains the ultimate antidote against cynicism and apathy: all it asks is you lend it your ears and in return you may just get something that makes the world more beautiful than you thought possible. If that sentiment is, understandably, a bit much to process with a straight face, let it suffice to say Kef is as extraordinary an album as I can recall listening to in a very long time.