Judging by photographs of live shows, Jason Ajemian’s fond of wedging drumsticks under the strings of his double bass. It’s difficult to discern which of the many wonderfully obscure noises this forms on record, and this is perhaps a fitting testament to this exploratory band. The Highlife are an Ohio-based six-piece compiled by Ajemian himself, who decided to use the three-dimensional design program AutoCAD to score this album. God knows what effect this actually had on the music, but suffice it to say that whoever can discern precisely how each sound on Let Me Get That Digital was created deserves a career in sound engineering.
This all contributes to a mess of a first listen. The album jolts between melodies that are too tasteful for free jazz and blind-ended dissonance that would strike fear into the hearts of those looking for some smooth brass time, bridging the gap between the razor-sharp melodies of James Chance and the free jazz maelstroms of Ornette Coleman, with all the attitude of a punk band. Saxophones flail about with nonchalant disregard for meter, and an electric guitar sounds like it is being played with a malfunctioning buzzsaw. Over this, we have Ajemian’s vocal cords, which purposefully evade the opportunity to settle down on a note. Instead he chooses to yelp indiscernible lines with the same disdain for rigid rhythms as the instruments. Only the drummer agrees to stick to time signatures, and even here it’s with some reluctance.
Spend time with this record, though, and it starts to reveal its thrust. The loose attitude toward order unearths fascinating patterns, tiny idiosyncrasies that hold the songs together. There’s the way the multi-layered chaos of “Distracting Lucas” abruptly turns into the dissonant funk riffs of “A JayTram Laser.” There’s the way that the call and response between faltering vocals and saxophone becomes increasingly chaotic until the band suddenly breaks into full-on free jazz in “Big Sky (#6).” There’s the final seconds of “Old Smokey,” when every note from every instrument is scattered wildly yet eventually serves to support a melody with stunning dynamic control. The album is constantly threatening to burst at the seams into chaos, and this is what makes it so enthralling, so visceral.
Much like the phenomenal works of Sebastian Rochford in Acoustic Ladyland and Polar Bear or the hardcore Italian mentalists Zu, Jason Ajemian and The Highlife have managed to take traditional jazz instruments out of context to produce something fascinating and truly original on Let Me Get That Digital. They have an acute knowledge of not only when to hold back the fireworks, but also when to launch them, and they will be consistently thrilling because of this.