Rockin' (And Talkin' To) Our Turntable: Jason Adasiewicz
By Rob Christopher in Arts & Entertainment on Oct 19, 2011 3:40PM
We watched Jason Adasiewicz play the vibraphone recently one evening at The Whistler for the first time and were astonished. He played the instrument in a way we'd never seen before. Using four mallets, two in each hand, he hit the bars very hard. Very, very hard. The effect was tremendous, the sound layered so densely at times that it was like someone either shaking a box full of springs or else employing a whole battery of sticks on an anvil. Nevertheless, you could still follow a melody of sorts.
Occasionally though he put down the mallets and instead armed himself with two cello bows, with which he sawed back and forth across the edges of the bars. It sounded halfway between a synth and a glass harmonica. You might have sworn that he was using some sort of effects filter. But in fact it was all natural: spooky, gorgeous, sexy as hell.
Similar to Jackie McLean's prime mid-60's work, his music dances on the thin line between way, way out and completely in the pocket. Even while assaulting the listener with intense clusters of sound, he swings like mad.
Like most Chicago jazz musicians, Adasiewicz (pronounced a-da-SHEV-its) plays with so many ensembles that it's hard to keep track of them all. One is Starlicker, fronted by cornetist Rob Mazurek, who has described it the group's sound as "a complex cloud of power and sweetness.” But Adasiewicz has at least two groups of his own too. Rolldown is a quintet, and their last album Varmint is both challenging and accessible. His other group, Sun Rooms, has just released its second album on Delmark. We had the chance to talk with him about the record, his working methods, and influences.
Chicagoist: So, what can you tell us about Spacer, the new album? How did the pieces evolve? Or how did you choose those particular things to be on the new album?
Jason Adasiewicz: Well, I wrote six tunes the winter of this year, and I lined up this residency at this bar called The Whistler. Jordan over there approached me about doing a month-long residency. I picked April. Basically the goal for me was to write a handful of new material and then develop it, shape it, whatnot, during this residency. We had four shows and then recorded at the end of that.
C: So the pieces kind of evolved on the bandstand, as it were.
JA: Six of them, yeah, and then on the record I played two solo pieces. And then we played a tune by Nate McBride, the bass player. He brought one in for the session. And then a piece that we were playing in the residency by a good friend of ours, Eric Boeren, a Dutch cornetist. I don’t know if you know that band Available Jelly, but he’s in that band. We were working on a tune of his on that residency too. I guess in a sense it was like writing for a record, thinking about how the pieces were going to flow on the record. The two solo pieces I do are pretty short and were kind of last minute, in the studio. I did these two pieces where I use the backs of the cello bows or violin bows--I get really percussive, like slamming the ends of the bows onto the bars, creating enormous metallic kind of abrasive clusters of sound.
C: Pretty much every every review of your music loves to point out the fact that you like to play the vibes really hard.
JA: [laughs] Well, I do. I can chalk that up to the drummer never leaving inside of me. That’s what I started out doing when I was a kid.
C: By the end of a set, are your arms just exhausted?
JA: Things actually loosen up. I bet it’s probably similar to like any sort of endurance within your body. You kind of like set a pace, like how a runner sets a pace. But then everything stretches out, so you can take it even further as time goes on. I guess the only thing is that physical exhaustion within the hands and arms can set in, definitely. But then it’s always nice to kind of let it burn too. [laughs]
C: If you’re a trumpeter or even a sax player, it’s pretty easy to move your instrument from gig to gig. Practically speaking, what’s involved with moving the vibraphone around town?
JA: Not much at all, man. It’s actually two trips, which is probably equivalent or even less than like carrying the drums around. The instrument that I have just kind of folds up like a suitcase. You roll up the bars, I just put the bars on my back , so it’s basically like hiking. It’s not hard at all. I think that everybody looks at it and they don’t think that it collapses. It actually comes apart very easily. And there’s a lot of aluminum in the frame, so it’s pretty light.
JA: I mean, I wouldn’t say it’s like compact. [laughs]
C: It’s not like a harmonica.
JA: To be a vibraphone street performer, that would be kind of intense. Or to like travel with it on the subway in New York, or even the subway here, that would be a challenge.
C: Although I have to imagine, playing it in the subway you’d get some pretty amazing acoustics.
JA: That’s a great point, man. I’ve never done that before. I wonder if you’d hear that, you know, the trains coming in. The ringing would just fill up the tunnel.
C: Is the working method on this new album a shift from how you’ve worked in the past?
JA: The first Sun Rooms record and this new Sun Rooms record were kind of a leap for me, composing at the vibraphone as opposed to composing at the piano. Which is kind of what I always did. With my band Rolldown, which is a quintet, I always composed from the piano with that stuff and then kind of like learned the pieces on the vibraphone, learned the parts that I wrote on the vibraphone. With Sun Rooms the pieces were always composed at the vibraphone, and I always played solo at the vibraphone before I brought them in to the band. Everything was composed at the vibraphone.
C: Do you sort of tend to compose at odd moments, whenever you have the time, or do you set aside a disciplined amount of time every day where you’re going to do some writing?
JA: Now that I have a daughter, she just turned two, I would say that it’s pretty much on the fly. She totally manages my time too--before, maybe you would have the entire day free but in the end, you wouldn’t even find time to actually do something. Where it’s like now, okay, she’s giving me an hour or two to do something. Now. So, something gets done then. Maybe it’s better! [laughs]
C: How does playing at The Whistler compare to playing at other venues? What’s your favorite venue?
JA: My favorite venue? I’ve always loved playing at The Hungry Brain. I’ve been playing at that place since it was born. I really love The Hideout. The Whistler is kind of a noisy one. Not that noise bothers me. But in the end, The Whistler can be a noisy one. You don’t really feel like you’re fighting with the audience, because you’re up on a stage and kind of nestled a little bit, so you don’t really hear much of it. But I think for people who are actually trying to listen, people who actually came to the show, they’re stuck with people who didn’t come to the show, that just wanted to hang out. But The Hungry Brain, and especially The Hideout, because their stage is sort of nestled in the back, people are there to only listen.
C: Jazz tends to be one of the few kinds of music that isn’t overamplified when you go to listen to it.
JA: Oh, sure. I mean, I still believe that it should be like--I mean, I guess I do play in bands that maybe require a little more attention. Where Sun Rooms and the stuff that I write for, I still want there to be like an element of socialness in watching or listening to the music. I think maybe because a lot of what I hear when I write is always swinging, it kind of leads to like a more social environment--it’s not always such a concert environment. Does that make sense? Whereas there are a lot of bands I’m involved with that definitely need that concert environment or else you’ll miss everything that’s happening.
C: Unlike a lot of jazz that’s out there these days, your music doesn't forget to swing. It’s such a fundamental component of what makes jazz so much fun to listen to, and stimulating, because you can actually kind of swing to it.
JA: Yeah, definitely. Chicago really likes to swing, still. I will say that. People ask me the difference between New York and Chicago. For me, we’re still embracing swing and we still want to do it.
C: How much of that rhythm do you compose when you’re thinking of a piece and how much do you kind of give that over to the drummer?
JA: With Sun Rooms, the actual melodic material, the chord movement, a lot of the song structure is pretty much my doing. But anything that Mike decides to play or Nate decides to play, it’s their voices speaking. If there’s a particular bass line I’m hearing, maybe I would write that down. But anything you hear bass-wise, that’s all Nate McBride. Same thing with drums. Maybe there’s like harmonic movement that’s suggested to the bass player.
The concept of “Why does everything swing?” I think that’s just--for all of us, that’s just the natural thing to do on all these tunes. There was one tune we really tried not to swing with. We were trying this sort of complicated "straight A" set. In the end it was just like, no, this thing wants to swing just like everything else. I guess the decision to swing is sort of within the band, too. A lot of my phrasing is swung. I think a lot of all of our phrasing is swung, too.
C: When you’re just kind of practicing and loosening up, are there standards you like to play? Just for fun?
JA: That’s a good question, man. I guess--I haven’t worked on standards for quite some time. But that’s definitely, like in terms of warming up, like on the road, it’s really nice to fall into something like that. When you’re on the road, it’s nice when you’ve been concentrating on somebody’s compositions for however long. If it’s a couple days or it’s a couple weeks, it’s always nice to slip into a standard, if you’re by yourself or with the band. But some of the stuff that I guess has been ringing in my head--on that Sun Rooms record, there’s that Duke Ellington tune “Warm Valley.” I got really obsessed about a year or two ago with Ellington’s record Such Sweet Thunder. That title track, and “The Star-Crossed Lovers.” There’s a Hasaan record with Max Roach, a tune I do on the Sun Rooms record called “Off My Back Jack.” But the entire record is just an amazing batch of tunes. There’s a couple Jimmy Guiffre tunes that are always kind of ringing in my head.
C: Are there any non-jazz things you like to play? You know, like pop songs, anything like that?
JA: There was this amazing Brazillian singer, Marcelo Camelo is his name, that I totally fell in love with. His guitar playing was so gorgeous. Just kind of figuring out what he’s doing on the guitar and transferring that to the vibraphone. I’ve been fascinated with how harmony works on the guitar, and then transferring that to your instrument. That’s definitely been a fascination of mine. Or even, you know, like John Lee Hooker grooves. The way he lays on the guitar, these propelling grooves. We’ll transfer that to the vibraphone and see how they work.
C: Does your approach change when you’re working on your own stuff at The Whistler, compared to when you’re a sideman on someone else’s session, or you’re rehearsing someone else’s composition?
JA: Interesting. I don’t think anything changes. I feel like within all the bands that I’m in, I would voice my opinion just as quick as if I were leading the band and had an opinion about a tune. I think that’s how all of us work. There’s a huge community of musicians who all sort of share that same idea. I mean it’s like, yeah, you’re a sideman, but it’s also a collaboration. It isn’t just like, "Okay, do this and be quiet.” I would say it’s exactly the same.
C: What upcoming gigs do you have for the rest of the year?
JA: I just finished this really amazing project that Mike Reed and I presented at the Chicago Jazz Festival. It was a large group that was comprised of a band that Mike has called Loose Assembly, and then four other musicians from New York. Do you know about the Sun Ra collection that was recovered by John Corbett? It’s over at Experimental Sound Studios. They spent a couple years digitizing the entire collection. We were asked to create a project out of it. What we ended up doing was, on this one rehearsal tape, which was a trio recording of ideas, and actual tunes, fragments of tunes, it’s about an hour long, it’s from 1961. Sun Ra, John Gilmore, Ronnie Boykins. We ended up using this tape as source material to then create tunes, whether or not we took it from fragments or ended up using the entire tune that was recorded on this rehearsal tape. And none of these tunes have found their way onto records or any other sort of performances. It was mainly like a documentation of things that they were working on. A lot of it is like really concise, and then there’s a lot of it that’s super scattered and just kind of like garbage, almost. We took that and then created five tunes and arranged them for ten people. We just got done recording that. For me, within the last week or two, that’s been like the most exciting thing. Things are definitely kicking up. Playing in the fall, I’m going to be over in Europe with Starlicker. We’re doing like a three week tour. Italy, France, and Poland. I come back for the Umbrella Festival to play with Ab Baars. And then I go over to Europe to play with Peter Brötzmann in Austria. Then I come back, and Rolldown goes on tour for the first time to the East coast.
C: And you’ll be playing at the Hungry Brain in December?
JA: I’ll be there in December a couple of times, but hopefully the Sun Room release show will either be at the Hungry Brain or HIdeout. That hasn’t been nailed down yet. But the record comes out October 18. So we’re going to try and squeeze some sort of party in there.