Stand in a room while Jason Adasiewicz is performing and his artistry is self-evident. The rarest musicians are those who are able to overcome the technical standards of their instrument and in turn breathe life into a new playing style; unquestionably unique, a different way of looking at the world. Sometimes that’s what it takes to capture an audience’s attention. Even frequent collaborator and jazz immortal Peter Brötzmann was not a fan of the vibraphone before he heard Jason Adasiewicz. “He actually hates that instrument,” laughs Adasiewicz, sitting with one on his right, a drumkit to his left. That’s because, until now, no one has ever played the vibraphone like he does.
Our conversation is framed by the ceiling’s split descent; Adasiewicz’s attic space is sunlit through subtle stained-glass windows. The scene is recognizable as the insert artwork to his Rolldown record “Varmint,” released in 2009. In the short time since, Adasiewicz has established an undeniable presence for the vibraphone as a sideman for every key figure in Chicago’s jazz scene, while at the same time writing refined, ear-catching compositions as a bandleader for Sun Rooms and Living by Lanterns. If you want proof that jazz is alive and kicking in Chicago, look no further than Jason Adasiewicz.
Even in an interview setting, Adasiewicz is a formidable collaborator, his contributions are colorful, his tone thoughtful. His honesty offers unique insight into the two-pronged problem puzzling contemporary jazz musicians: how to get free, and how to get noticed.
I. How to Get Free
It began with the alphabet. “The letter X is ‘xylophone,’ so you learn the xylophone when you’re pretty young,” remarks Adasiewicz. Crystal Lake, Illinois, a sleepy suburban community to the northwest, provided only so many options for the budding musician. “Jazz band was a total joke, I mean there wasn’t even a bass player. You couldn’t find anybody to play bass. And every now and then you’d find a flute player who knew how to play piano and she would read keyboard bass lines.” Adasiewicz smiles at the memory: “That’s where I started playing jazz, with a high school big band with no bass player.” Crystal Lake isn’t much of a nourishing music community, the few musicians in the recent past who have made it out to wider acclaim did so under the emo-punk umbrella, bands like the Smoking Popes, or Fall Out Boy—who hail from Wilmette, a city not far from Hoffman Estates and the then-location of Record Breakers, which is now in the city at Reggies Rock Club. It’s remarkable that even a regional record store was prompted to head downtown for a fresh start. “That’s the thing, you have to come to Chicago. That’s the only reason why I came here.”
Adasiewicz’s response as an adolescent was to delve deeper into institutionalized instruction. “There wasn’t that many people to play with. Music in school turns into a total competition then. You want to start making those district [level] bands, and those all-state [level] bands. Just like with the sports, so that you can play with better players.” At the time, Adasiewicz was completely committed to jazz drumming, and was anxious to meet the academic standards of excellence. The bedrock of his playing is shaped by this experience, a profound mixture of rigor and competitive performance. A great many public school programs in America share this teaching technique, and given jazz’s wane from prominence, this is how America’s true art form is now being maintained. As Adasiewicz sees it: “Jazz gets this rap, because it lives so much in the school nowadays, it has become this competitive thing, just like a sport. But I think also the language of jazz for some reason… you hear all these stories about these cats who vibe you for not knowing all these standards, for not knowing standards in all twelve keys,” he begins to imitate his academic elders, “You’re never gonna make it in the city getting called by jobbing bands, or getting studio work, if you don’t know this, and this, and this!” The Achilles’ heel of the academic approach is a definitive lack of creative encouragement, a missed opportunity to foster the seeds of songwriting. “It was never about: what do you have to say on your instrument?” Adasiewicz sharpens the dilemma, though he was unable to articulate the struggle at the time.
Instead, he would head downtown every Monday to play in Rob Parton’s high school jazz band at Roosevelt University. In the present, Adasiewicz is experiencing a creative emergence that few in the jazz world can rival, and a look back at his past can be baffling. “For some reason I was just locked in this total drumming nerd-out world,” he examines. “It was such an academic thing.” His values as a player were closely aligned with his instruction. He was in training to get gigs that someone like jazz luminary Pat Metheny would literally end up offering to robots. By the time Adasiewicz had hit his third year in DePaul University’s music program, the competitive aspect had worn him down. “In my head, when I was young, I thought in order to be a musician, I had to go through college. Which is totally, you know… obviously, I went the other way.” Such is the flip-side to the cushy confines of college. University training offers systematic support from a well-funded institution, instruction that by virtue of its inculcation must exclude certain types of expression. This is how a hierarchy of art and knowledge takes hold. Institutionalized instruction attempts to educate musicians to be great all-around artists, yet it’s impossible to foster a skill-set with true variety when artists are pushed to work exclusively within the confines of an academic setting, par excellence.
Here’s what gets lost: “The concept of improvising, I didn’t know what that was when I was in college. I didn’t know what the AACM was when I was in college. It wasn’t until I started working at the Jazz Record Mart, and really started to dig into all these records that I knew nothing about.” In the classroom, the liberating lessons of pioneering jazz masters from the sixties and seventies were cast aside; the lag time of institutionalized truth. “You knew about all the famous Blue Note records, post-bop records in college, and I still think that’s a lot of what’s being driven home in that setting, still. All those classic Blue Notes. But I had no idea what a lot of shit was. I had no idea about the Dutch scene. I had no idea who Peter Brötzmann was, and now I play a duo with him. I had no idea what any of that was when I was in college, none of that was talked about. That’s a big issue. Don’t get me wrong, there are a ton of schools that are [offering different instruction] or maybe I just wasn’t hip. I was just so caught up in more of the modern road of jazz.” After all, at this point you can enroll at Mills College to study with Roscoe Mitchell. Yet the wide reach of academia’s influence remains substantial, even if Adasiewicz’s playing offers an antidote to restrictive thinking.
II. How to Get Noticed
Jazz music has receded from the realm of mainstream popularity. Removed from the security of conservatories, from its heralded status as America’s original art form, the playing style has to fight for listeners alongside every other genre. If you’re not playing to “get the call,” to be a session musician, “If you’re not deciding to do that, then you’re just deciding to try and create something to eventually grab somebody’s ear. Then it all just spirals, because in the end you want to play for more people. You want to play for more people, and what does that mean? You have to travel.” Clearly, there’s no taking jazz for granted when a musician is trying to make a living pursuing it. His lifeline on the ropes, Adasiewicz is no exception.
His playing itself, however, is exceptional. Adasiewicz strikes the vibraphone with such carefree dexterity that he turns the instrument inside out, taking on a piano-like melodic presence at one moment, and then just as quickly exposing the raw texture of the aluminum bars, producing a crash cymbal’s crystalline ring. Few instruments, if any, allow for such malleable possibilities, and even fewer artists are insightful enough to straddle the roles of the rhythm section and soloist. Though many vibraphonists have come before him, only Adasiewicz has managed to distill the power of piano and drums into this singular instrument. The success has everything to do with his approach. “There is a huge melodic part to my writing, and a lot of it stems from the jazz tradition, and this concept of a tune, a tune that can stand alone whether or not you want to improvise on it.” The method is time-tested; even Paul McCartney released a jazz standards album.
Adasiewicz’s songwriting sensibilities are at odds with the governing trends in jazz music today. Though he’s worked hard to immerse himself in a playing style that does away with the rigid confines of his past, he still struggles with courting an enthusiastic audience. “I love improvised music, I love the complexity of it, but I kinda would just like to make people dance, too.” Here Adasiewicz draws a line between his Chicago compatriots and their New York counterparts. “There’s always been a heat between the two cities, and there still is. A huge part of me feels that we’re not afraid to still swing, or to have that propulsion. It isn’t overly complex. Jazz has gotten super, overly complex. Going back to the academic world, I can blame a lot on that.” Adasiewicz’s primary project, Sun Rooms, might just be a way to reconcile the competing impulses at play, to both challenge and court a new generation of listeners.
“There’s a new record that comes out in August on Delmark,” announces Adasiewicz. “Last November we recorded it when we were on tour. We had a couple of days off in Amsterdam, so we recorded it there. All new tunes.” Bassist Nate McBride is out and has been replaced by Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, of The Thing. A duo performance between Flaten and Adasiewicz at Heaven Gallery in January of 2013 was good enough to live up to the venue’s name. Punishing percussive intent between the two, Adasiewicz pounding the vibes until the bars flung off; not in a showy way, but as a means to stretch the sound of the instrument. Up against it, Flaten nearly snapped the strings off his bass, bending and pulling without relent. The power was palpable. Once Mike Reed is added to the mix… but wait, what happened to McBride? “He pretty much had to hang it up. He’s in Boston. He’s an amazing carpenter. Unbelievable furniture maker.”
Adasiewicz and Reed also collaborate in their group Living by Lanterns, whose debut “New Myth/Old Science” exemplified the power of creative composition among Chicago’s improvising class. “Shadow Boxer’s Delight,” the closing tune on side one, is enough to make a modern listener double-take the year of release, but the potent project is at a standstill. “It isn’t like we want to revisit another Sun Ra tape and make a bunch of new tunes again. I think that idea was what the first record was. If anything, it’s what do we do next?” Nothing, yet. Though Adasiewicz does have a bunch of new records with Brötzmann coming out. A quartet album, “Mental Shake” was just released with John Edwards and Steve Noble rounding out the group, an improvised effort that sounds anything but. “The duo album will be coming out in the fall,” says Adasiewicz. “This one is from the tour that we did two years ago. It’s from the show at the Hideout.” Though these projects dabble in abstraction, there’s no escaping their emotional pull.
All that thought is just a means to an end: to simplify. Representative of the Chicago school is thinking in order to have better feel. The Chicago school is grounded, of the people, but how is that effect achieved through improvised jazz? It’s unpopular here. This is the dilemma of contemporary composition in America, though it’s not the same everywhere. Sun Rooms just returned from some gigs in Russia: “Coming from Moscow, there’s this younger generation that’s just so fucking thirsty for it. Where are those people here?” Adasiewicz ponders. “And even in parts of Europe, too. You play for the same older crowd. How is the music not reaching the younger crowd? Put Brötzmann up there at Lollapalooza or something. What would happen?” For his part, Mike Reed’s role as festival director of the Pitchfork Music Festival offered opportunities to sneak in jazz programming during the early years, but the eclectic presentation has been traded for trendy by the critical outlet.
Pitchfork now has sway over America’s youth audience, and Pitchfork does not do jazz coverage. Adasiewicz lights up at the suggestion. “That would be an interesting article to write. There’s a lot of truth to that. Why can’t they write about jazz? I want that audience. Put Brötzmann in front of those kids! They would freak out!” The critical outlet has effectively missed Brötzmann’s last decade, not reviewing any of his work since 2003. It took George Duke’s death last year before they offered a single word on his career. “The traffic of the kids, there’s so much of it on that site. Why can’t it be a click away to discover it?” Attending live shows is an important gateway, but knowing which to attend is difficult with the state of jazz out of joint with popular youth culture. Once you’re in the room with jazz, its power is unmistakable, but first you have to make it into the room. That very potency has been brought to recorded sound, but when a new listener can’t make out the melody that their accustomed to hearing, they’re bound to discredit its worth. All they hear is the extremes of the instrument, the squonk of the saxophone, not the dramatic harmonic moments. That’s a struggle for contemporary audiences. They aren’t always patient enough to discover the poetic spirit of jazz playing. Their experiences are limited to Miles Davis and John Coltrane; jazz today is too far out.
It wasn’t always this way. The bent-out distortion of acoustic and electric instruments once stood side by side. In 1970, Miles Davis was sharing bills with everyone from the Grateful Dead to Neil Young and Crazy Horse. Today, Adasiewicz is straddling the divide more than anyone, notably with Steve Dawson in a project called Funeral Bonsai Wedding. It’s the sound of Americana folk-rock laid loosely atop rhythmic improvisation, helped in large part by Adasiewicz’s swinging style. He makes the vibraphone splash in warmth and color and harmony, supportive of Dawson’s song, yet performative and show-stopping all at once. “I’m kinda like glue,” says Adasiewicz. His methodology allows him to get in or get over with an instrument that still seems novelty to some. Adasiewicz has a different kind of feel. “That’s how I hear the instrument. It’s constantly resolving itself somehow. And the way that the overtones collide with each other, if you’re creative on how you resolve it, the sound is a lot more tonal than it actually really is.” That’s the tension of harmony grazing against dissonance and then just as quickly dissipating into a cloud of overtones. It’s evocative of the shadowplay between truth and experience. Insight arrives just as quickly as it recedes into the ever-forming, constant unknown.
It requires nuance to achieve that diversity in playing, that broad range of appeal, the “gotta have it” feel. In rock corollary, he’s trying to do for contemporary jazz right now what Scotty Moore did with slapback echo on his guitar for Elvis Presley half a century ago. Reinvent the conventionality of an instrument under a new, definitive guise. Given the breadth of talent knocking at his door, Adasiewicz is succeeding in the endeavor. “This city created me. It totally did. People always ask me who my influences are, thinking I’m gonna talk about Bobby Hutcherson records, or Lester Young records. But it’s the people I’ve been playing with for the past fifteen or twenty years. The people here have shaped me.” Lately, the jazz coming out of Chicago is being composed with a lot of artistic integrity, like the lack of lucrative careerism has purified the expression. The trendy indie bands that Pitchfork covers can make a career out of being self-serving, churning out compositions that sound like nineties alternative rock reworked. Do that over the course of six years with the backing of a big booking agency, and suddenly a mediocre musician generates a modest living. That’s not how that game is played in the jazz world. Nobody is ripping off 1992 to make a living; that opportunity does not exist.
So why do it? “The energy of the room, that’s why we do it. Everything else is totally stupid. Why would you do that? Why would you get up at four in the morning, take two fucking airplanes to get somewhere, and only be in Moscow for less than twenty-four hours? Because of that feeling on stage. It was ungodly. And what you just put your body through, too. And what you’re gonna put your body through now, on your instrument. And then you’re not letting up, you’re not letting up, and then the audience pushes you, and pushes you. That endurance, that physicality, that’s totally attractive to me.” Adasiewicz has learned from the masters. “There’s a lot of elder jazz cats who won’t get on an airplane for less than ten grand. Not Peter. This is what’s keeping him alive. The people are keeping him alive. And that’s so fucking beautiful. That’s the place I want to get to.” The people are starting to notice.
Sun Rooms performs June 27 and 28 at Constellation, 3111 North Western. 9:30pm. $10. 21+.