Guitarist Aram Bajakian could have taken Vancouver by storm.
Having moved to town at the tail end of a Diana Krall tour that found him playing soft-seaters around the globe, he might have parlayed his connections to jazz royalty into some high-profile headlining gigs. Or, having previously worked with the late Lou Reed, he could have pushed for fame in the local rock scene, which has always been hungry for New York City grit.
But that’s just not his style. Instead, he’s been writing études for classical guitar, learning how to program hip-hop beats, and hanging out at the playground, keeping a keen eye on his two small children and soaking up the warmth of an extended Indian summer. He is going to charm his new home—but he’ll do it by stealth.
It’s not that Bajakian lacks ambition. He’s already issued two fine recordings this year, the groundbreaking, folk-inspired Dálava and the beguilingly bluesy there were flowers also in hell. In addition to Reed and Krall, he’s also toured and recorded with a long list of luminaries, including saxophonist, composer, and Tzadik label boss John Zorn. Even as a sophomore in high school, when he sneaked into a university-level master class with Wynton Marsalis, he was courting praise—as he recalls in a candid, in-person interview with the Georgia Straight.
“Wynton told me that the most important thing to do was to play with a lot of feeling, and that really stuck with me,” Bajakian says. “I’m not really into his music at all, but I thought that was a good thing to say.”
Less surprising is that Bajakian quickly went on to win the support of guitarist Marc Ribot, the edgy, imaginative picker of choice for Tom Waits, T Bone Burnett, and Krall’s husband, Elvis Costello.
“He’s the one who hooked me up with Zorn: he was like, ‘Check this guy out!’ ” the younger guitarist explains. “And Zorn led to Lou, so, really, it all started with Marc.”
Bajakian’s equanimity and professionalism also contributed to his success as an accompanist. “I think when I’m a sideman, my goal is just to honour what the leader is doing,” he explains. “With Lou, I was just always on him, watching him. The last two tours, his guitar-playing wasn’t quite where it was 10 or 20 years ago, but I felt almost like he could speak through me; that was my goal. And with Diana, she’s so about tasteful melody, and I wanted to allow that to come through. But the thing is, Lou did this record with Metallica [Lulu], so I had to be able to play like James Hetfield, who is a monster guitar player; his right hand is insane! And then I had to go and play with Diana, which is a totally different thing. How do you do both?”
Curiosity is how, and also why Bajakian is now pursuing his own projects—although he wouldn’t say no if Waits came calling. He’s in Vancouver because his wife, singer Julia Úlehla, is doing her doctorate in musicology at UBC, with the first results audible by way of their Dálava band and its eponymous debut.
A stunning fusion of Middle European melody, rock energy, and scratchy avant-jazz textures, the disc updates work that Úlehla’s great-grandfather, Vladimir Úlehla, did in the rural Czech province of Moravia during the first half of the 20th century. Julia’s ancestor was nominally a biologist, and an important one: he founded the Department of Plant Physiology at Masaryk University, in Brno. But his real passion lay elsewhere.
“He loved folk music, and he wrote this massive book filled with folk songs that he collected,” Bajakian says. “He also compared them to biology—how they’re living creations which can change over time. It’s amazing. And Julia’s translating it now, which is also amazing. She was speaking with Bruno Nettl, who’s, like, the world’s most famous ethnomusicologist, and he had never even heard of this book—but they use it at schools in the Czech Republic. Everybody knows it there.”
Celebrating Dálava’s release is why Bajakian’s now ready to claim a little more of the local spotlight, by way of three performances over two days at the intimate China Cloud nightclub.
“Friday night is Dálava, with Jesse Zubot playing violin, which is great,” he says. “And then the next night we’ll be playing some of the tracks from there were flowers also in hell with [drummer] Dan Gaucher and [bassist] Colin Cowan. It’s going to be killer, man; they play that stuff so well. And then for the second set on Saturday I’m just going to play solo guitar, because that’s what I’ve mostly been doing up here—just sitting at the playground or on my porch.”
Taken together, the three sets sound like an appropriately wide-ranging way for Bajakian to introduce himself to his new home, and he agrees.
“That’s kind of how I was feeling,” he says, “I want to be like, ‘This is where I live, so here I am!’ ”
Aram Bajakian plays the China Cloud on Friday and Saturday (October 17 and 18).