Jason Ajemian & The HighLife: Live high or die hard

photos by Lucas Fritz

When I talk to people who didn’t come to see Jason Ajemian & The HighLife and Coald Toast on Saturday night about what they missed, I find myself stumbling over my words to make any description other than “It was amazing.” People like reference points. They want to know what genre it is or what genres it pulls from. They’d like to be told what artist or band it sounds like, so that they might be able to imagine what the music was like without having been there. As soon as I realize that doing so for The HighLife would be like identifying a kaleidoscope by a single color, it becomes a bit of an easier task.

See, an explanation of this band is less of what musical influences they draw from and more of an exact description of their sound. Breaking it down even further, what they sound like is a direct result of their unique musical process and the characters who are taking part in it.

Each of Ajemian’s Auto-CAD-notated scores is a blueprint for the set. It’s a visual map from room to room, each room being a song sung solely by the bassist and accompanied by the band, an a capella Canadian sea shanty sung by a harmonizing and stomping quintet, a James Brown-ish groove, a rhythmically lulling chorus with lyrics “We’re not scared of monsters, monsters,” and so the list continues.

Jacob Wick, Peter Hanson, Jason Ajemian

The notated hallways that connect each room (this is less of a metaphor than you may think) set the tone for the improvised transitions from room to room. Saturday night was their 20th or so gig on this tour alone. Along with their tour in August of last year and various other gigs, that makes it their 35th or so gig as a band. Trumpeter Jacob Wick told me that while the main songs (rooms) were likely to be similar from night to night, the real variations happen in the improvised transitions (hallways) or when Ajemian cues a song in a different order than the score suggests.

Wick and Hanson

Between their first and second set, I had to ask the band about how they never seemed to look at the music. The three or four large sheets that make up one set were carefully draped over monitor speakers at the front of the stage, far enough away from guitarist Owen Stewart-Robertson and drummer Marc Riordan that seeing the smaller details on the page for them seemed unlikely. Furthermore, Wick, alto saxophonist Peter Hanson, and Ajemian looked like their eyes were closed throughout the performance even though they would delicately turn the page when it was time. Their answer should have been pretty obvious to me: they’ve played lots of gigs together to the point where they mostly use the scores for reference.

Coald Toast: Caleb Flood, Taylor Burton, and Tyler Newbold

View the entire photo album on flickr

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Dean Christesen

Notice: Comments that are not conducive to an interesting and thoughtful conversation may be removed at the editor’s discretion.

  1. lindsey on said:

    I’m confused, is this it? it seemed like this article stopped in the middle?

    Also, I didn’t like the transitions between songs at all. The songs themselves were fun and crazy and interesting and all the things that I love about listening to music. The transitions were too much free jazz! At first I thought it would be cool, but then after about the first twenty minutes of only hearing one song and the rest free stuff, my ears and brain were exhausted. I’m sure some people really loved this, but I wouldn’t go see them again based on what I heard.

  2. The Highlife was a super cool band. Very interesting concept. They played folk, free-jazz, and grooved super hard with sweet vocals. Score!
    Too bad there was a table of girls talking loud as shit the entire time they were there…………………….if it were only Wilco………….. ;)

  3. I’m with Pace! I thoroughly enjoyed this band. I got to check them out in DC a while back. I know of very few groups that so adeptly navigate so many styles without sounding derivative or contrived. I also love that Dean pointed out the fact that all the Auto-CAD business is not a gimmick. It’s really the best way to visually represent this music and the musicians have internalized a lot of what’s happening. My favorite song was the sea shanty. I agree with Pace that all the talking was super-distracting. The Camel has a whole other room for that! I think anyone who really listened to what this band was doing would have found lots to like.

  4. lindsey on said:

    haha well as someone who was at the table let me restate what i said on the Wilco article. DON’T PLAY AT A BAR IF YOU DON’T WANT PEOPLE TO TALK. if you play at a bar, people will come to drink and socialize. particularly if they are not thrilled by the music like I wasn’t. I paid $7 for a show that was super hyped up to me and was not satisfied. It happens.

    Also there wasn’t seating in the other room, that is why we chose to sit where we were. If you want silence, go some place else. I am so tired of hearing musicians complain about this. Go play at Muse! Go play at a concert hall! Let me go to a bar and enjoy drinks with my friends without being treated like a heathen. Also you could have easily moved tables to sit closer. I did go to the bar and check out seating there, but it didn’t work out that there were enough seats for all of us. Get over this talking thing. It will not stop. If it wasn’t us it would have been someone else. And it is terribly rude to shush another person in a public place enjoying drinks with their friends. AT A BAR.

    I listened for a long time before we began talking, and I’m not a fan. I won’t go see them again. But you can bet your butt that if they are playing at a bar I want to go to that is not going to stop me from talking and enjoying a night out.

  5. Lindsey, I don’t think any of this ‘talking’ business would even be an issue had you not decided publicly express your displeasure with Dean’s writing and the band’s playing. Surely you can understand that someone could ask the question “How could she criticize something she wasn’t listening to?” The issue is not talking. The issue is loud talking by one small group in a room full of people who are trying to listen to music.

    I think all musicians can agree that the social atmosphere and the energy of a restaurant/bar can be a great thing. The “hang” is, of course, a big reason people go out to hear music in this and many other towns. I don’t begrudge anyone the right to go to a bar, hear some music and talk with their friends. I love playing at The Camel, Balliceaux and just about anywhere else in Richmond because I get to play music and hang out with my friends.

    That said, I think a little situational awareness on both sides would be good. As a counter to your all-caps argument, if talking is more important to you than hearing band play, don’t knowingly go to the place they are playing and pay the cover to hear them. If, as you said, you decided you didn’t like the music as it was happening, take stock of what’s going on in the room before you make your next move. The vast majority of the people were listening attentively and quietly and they have the right to do that if they payed a cover to hear a band. Was the talking your way of signaling to everyone that you didn’t like the band? If you didn’t like the band, cool, just realize that the way you expressed that fact was disruptive to the people that did.

    I don’t expect absolute silence when I play at bars. However, there would also be no reason to play music if I didn’t want people to listen and enjoy it. There’s certainly a sliding scale in terms of tolerable ambient noise depending on if it’s a free show or there’s a cover or whether or not there’s a stage/PA etc… Perhaps the best thing about the arts is that they can give a large number of people a common experience. Musicians and audiences have to work together to that end.

  6. lindsey on said:

    No, the talking was not to signal that I did not like the band. After listening quietly to the majority of the first set. The talking you were speaking of occurred very close to the end of the first set, which is when I left. Because I was not enjoying the music. I was aware and considerate of what was going on around me. I didn’t HAVE to get up and go check out the bar side of the room to see if I could find a seat there. I chose to as someone who understood that other people were listening.

    And why not publicly express that I didn’t like it? Do I not have the right to dislike music I hear or to talk in a public place? I don’t think I was being inconsiderate since I even made an effort to leave the room. Again, others may not have even tried. I was also just curious if that was the end of the article. That is called questioning not criticizing. It didn’t feel like the end to me and after I read it I thought maybe it was a two-parter. Since I haven’t received an answer to that question from Dean, I am still not criticizing the article. I never said the article was bad or I didn’t like it. I do. I thought it was well-written and a great perspective. I enjoyed looking at the pictures as well. I still feel like the place where it ends doesn’t feel like an ending. And if it is, I’m not criticizing. Just curious if there was more.

    Also, loud talking by one group of people in a small group of people means that if more people had been there the likeliness of more talking would have increased. As someone who frequently goes to shows and does nothing but listen and also frequently goes to shows and talks I would think you would know that I have some situational awareness. Furthermore we weren’t even talking loudly! The point where we were talking happened to be a quiet part. That may have made our talking seem loud, but it was at an appropriate volume for everyone at the table to hear the person who was speaking.

    Talking was not more important to me than hearing the band. That is what I came for and that is what I did. After I had made the decision to leave, I decided to spend my last few minutes there having a good time with my friends. And in reference to “The vast majority of people,” the number of people was certainly not vast. It was a small crowd and I would say that based on how many people were on that side of the room, about 1/4 of the people-our table-were talking.

    I wasn’t expressing my displeasure with the band. I did so verbally to my friends afterward and in written form here as a comment. People will talk when you play music. That’s it. I know you don’t expect silence, but when you’re playing music, people will have to raise their voices to speak to friends over it. Bottom line.

    Did we ruin the entire concert for you? No. I left. I took my talking back to someone else’s house. But the second I stopped listening and being an audience member I became a regular bar go-er. And I had a great time with my friends at the Camel.

  7. I think we’re done here. Time to practice.

  8. IrishJazz on said:

    I just want to make sure I have the rules straight here:

    Talking is acceptable at a musical performance as long as:

    1. Drinks are served
    2. You have given the band a fair chance to impress you before piping up
    3. You make sure you only raise your voice to the extent that your speech drowns out the music so that you can be clearly understood.
    4. You only piss off 75% of the people at the event.
    5. You don’t shush. That would be rude.

    I think I’ve got it.

  9. .:. on said:

    Some dude just walked into the airport wearing a karate outfit.

  10. Jason S on said:

    Lindsey, its okay, I understand what you’re saying. And may I add that you are always welcome to attend and talk overtop any of my local performances. I would like to highlight my “Lennie Tristano” group as a excellent opportunity for talking over since it is only of medium volume and considerably outdated.

  11. If you don’t want people to talk at shows, go see bands at The Listening Room. No booze, no talking. I don’t go to the Listening Room because I like to drink and see my friends at shows. I also like rock-n-roll loud enough that you shouldn’t be able to *talk* at shows, it should require SHOUTING and CONFUSION. Viva Rock-N-Roll! I can’t wait for this whole “quiet is the new loud” stuff to be gone. Tinnitus & me, BFFs!

  12. .:. on said:

    Jason, I would love to talk loudly at one of your Tristano gigs. It would add to the historical accuracy.

    I would go on and on about how Warne was Ne Plus Ultra.

  13. @Lindsey You must have been eagerly awaiting this answer all day: Yeah, the article’s done. No part 2. I didn’t think it needed a big bang of an ending. Photo #4 takes care of that.

  14. lindsey on said:

    Cool thanks dean. I was just curious. I like the photos, they do say a lot about the vibe of that whole thing. i told lucas at the show that that 4th one was my favorite. love it!

    And thanks Jason haha. Let me know when you’re having a gig and I will come chat with my friends! Or probably listen most of the time and talk to my friends for about 10 out of the 60 minutes I’m there.

    sorry for writing a dissertation guys. i don’t mean to stir things up, i just don’t like being accused of ruining an entire show. i had a really good time that night. coald toast is a pretty cool band. i’ve only heard them three times live now, so i’m definitely going to try to make it to their next gig.

  15. No entire shows were ruined in the making of this article and I didn’t mean to imply that. Probably should have used the understood “you” in making my point. Hope to see everyone out on the scene next time. Be warned, though…I’ll have duct tape.

  16. I might add that in the middle of the first tune, I moved from the back booth to standing right in front of the stage. There was a bachelor’s party on the bar side filled with people who needed a place to chug beers and didn’t mind paying a cover to do it. They were chatty (obviously) and at points loud, but were only obtrusive to the music during the few quiet moments. I never heard the table at the back.

    Between sets, I asked the band if it bothered them, and they said “Nah, we’re used to it.” It’s an unfortunate reality that it’s just something that people will have to deal with. But Lindsey’s comment of “Don’t play at a bar if you don’t want people to talk” doesn’t really apply here, as Scott and I — and not the band — booked the gig. I do stand by The Camel as one of the best places in Richmond to book a band for a small-midsized audience, but it was also mine and Scott’s responsibilities to look out for their and their listeners’ well-being.

    There’s a reason that some clubs have a “no talking” policy. It’s a popular policy for jazz clubs. Why? Lots of reasons, like that type of music often exists under the threshold of volume where you can speak over it and not disturb others, people pay high covers and drink minimums to see popular musicians, etc. Luckily for people like Lindsey and CB, The Camel is not one of those clubs. I’m a believer of just keeping respect for others as a priority at shows. Being aware of your surroundings means if you’re the only one doing something, you’re either the coolest person around or you’re annoying the shit out of someone (possibly everyone). When it comes to being the only person (or table) talking at shows, it’s most definitely the latter. (This doesn’t apply to the Wilco/The National incident. That was a different situation where tons of people trying to actively listen probably made up the minority)

    I do hope to try out a no-talking show some day. But look, if there were two places in a club where talking was ok, it would be at the bar and at the back of the hall. It becomes a problem when it affects every listener in the hall no matter their location.

    It also kind of sucks that we’re talking about this and not the music. This will never go away. But the musical experience that happened is gone. (That reminds me, did anyone record it??)

  17. Lucas on said:

    Well as the photographer from this gig and an anticipated listener, I also was not too into the music. I love jazz, free playing, group improvisation, but for some reason the way they were doing it (and it could have been a one night thing) didn’t cut it for me. I loved many of the grooves and what seemed like pre-planned melodies but the whole-group improvisation fell flat. That being said, although I was disappointed, I sat quietly trying to decide what it was I did like and when there were parts I didn’t, decide what did not appeal to me. I think all music should be listened too, but on the other hand I do agree that some talking during gigs should be allowed. We have already alienated enough people from our music, should we outcast the last few who want to talk a little during our gigs?

  18. I think there’s a right and wrong way to talk at a show. At quieter jazz shows at the Camel, I won’t do any unrelated chatting, but I will lean in to my friends to make occasional comments about the music like “this new intro changes the vibe of this song” or “omg I love Randall”. If I’m on the bar side getting a drink, I’ll have a conversation; maybe also if I’m at the back of the crowd at a No BS show where it’s full and loud and I’m usually with a bigger group of people that seems to lead to more chatting and I don’t want to be a curmudgeon.

    I was on the rail at the Wilco show, so I limited myself to just a couple of ear-whispered comments between songs, since I knew the band could see me.

    I get stressed when people are stressed, so I don’t want to hear loud talking OR shushing OR Tweedy complaining about people talking. The friendly thing is for listeners to not distract their neighbors, and for the band to be gracious about it (polite/charming requests for less talking are ok with me).

    And I’d much rather have beer available if I’m paying to get into a show, so I disagree with the argument that having a bar in the venue means people at tables on the listening side can proceed as though the show’s not happening, just because they have a drink.

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