Jason Adasiewicz

Jason Adasiewicz’s Violent Vibes

Kevin Whitehead

By Kevin Whitehead

on 11.21.14 in Features
‘I’m embracing what the instrument can do, which is ring. I want to get the whole instrument resonating.’

During his main stage set at this year’s Chicago Jazz Festival, Gary Burton demonstrated how to play vibraphone with consummate grace. He leaned over the instrument ever so slightly, making no unnecessary moves, holding two mallets in each hand low over the metal bars, as he constructed melodies that sounded like lush doorbell tones over chiming pastel harmonies.

On a makeshift sidestage the next afternoon, with his trio Sun Rooms, Jason Adasiewicz (rhymes with Manischevitz) took a boxer’s stance behind his vibraphone. Adasiewicz started out as drummer, and smacks the instrument hard, playing clanging dissonances to make it seem louder — the hanging blur of C headbutting C-sharp. He hammers out a rattlingly loud arpeggio, then abruptly cut it off, leaving a few pretty notes behind. He likes big gestures, but may precisely tailor individual notes within a fast run. At runaway tempos, he sounds like a conventional vibist sped up.

Sometimes he swung the mallets like John Henry’s hammer, from over his head, coaxing out the aluminum bars’ most reluctant overtones. He’s always in motion, stomping on the sustain pedal, or smashing out a four-mallet chord at a precarious angle, one foot off the ground. Sometimes he strikes so hard, he almost loses balance on the rebound.

His set at the Chicago Jazz Festival wasn’t all crash and burn, though. He played a pretty, swinging ballad or two, because there’s no point in giving up the vibes’ beauty entirely. But even then, every note pops out, and changes shape as it hangs in the air, like a giant soap bubble. At one point he started bowing the ends of a couple of bars with violin bows, yielding a thin, tuning fork-like sound. He sawed away until the vibraphone started humming like a guitar feeding back. His ambition is plain: He wants to make the instrument sound as forceful as possible.

A student percussionist who’d been sitting nearby with her parents rushed up to Adasiewicz after the set, her face beaming. “I didn’t know the vibes could do that!” she gushed. “I hear that a lot,” Jason Adasiewicz admits.

“Around 1998, 2000, I straddled the Chicago improvised and indie rock scenes,” Adasiewicz says two days later, in his attic studio on a residential block near the city’s Portage Park. “I played in the band Bablicon, which could be very loud. So I tried to amplify the instrument. I got a pickup, and did a show at HotHouse with a plexiglass enclosure around me, and a little amplifier. But it wasn’t working. I realized I just needed to hit the thing harder. I’ve always hit it hard, but I feel like it gets harder and harder all the time.”

‘Learning scales and arpeggios in all 12 keys — I didn’t want my solos to sound like that. I knew I wasn’t gonna be a straight vibes player.’

When he’s slamming the bars from overhead, does he hit what he’s aiming at? “Total caveman target practice,” he calls it with a laugh. “I don’t always know where the mallets are going to land. I’m aiming for things, but hope to hit other things too. I’m embracing what the instrument can do, which is ring. I want to get the whole instrument resonating.”

Jason Adasiewicz came up in the early ’00s wave of Chicago improvisers (Josh Berman, Dave Rempis, Joshua Abrams and Mike Reed among them) who still exchange ideas and play on each other’s projects — an informal co-op. Adasiewicz and several others play on bassist Jason Roebke’s octet album High/Red/Center, out on Delmark shortly before Sun Rooms’ new From the Region, with Reed on drums and Norwegian dynamo Ingebrigt Haaker-Flaten now on bass. (Nate McBride played on Sun Rooms’ first two albums.)

The vibist also plays on Mental Shake, a free-improvised quartet disc with gale-force German saxophonist Peter Brotzmann, English bassist John Edwards and drummer Steve Noble. Eremite released a Brotz/Adasiewicz duo album in November, timed to a European tour.

“Peter heard me at the Hideout with Starlicker,” Adasiewicz says; that’s a trio with cornetist Rob Mazurek and Tortoise drummer John Herndon. “When we talked after, the first thing Peter told me was how much he hated the vibraphone, except for Lionel Hampton. After the next time he heard me, playing Joe McPhee tunes, he asked me to play with him at the Vision Festival in New York, and Austria’s Wels festival. That was in 2011, and later we did a three-week duo tour. I barely knew the guy, it was my first all-improvised tour, and I was scared shitless. But the music grew from the first night. And I learned a lot from Peter about projection.”

From the Region shows Adasiewicz can also rein his playing in when necessary. The trio swings with comparative restraint on catchy tunes like “Leeza” and “Old Sparky.” “It’s not as left-field as people may think,” Adasiewicz says. “It’s ‘jazz,’ not free-improvised music. I’ve always loved that swing feeling, I just want to make it my own.”

Born in 1977, Jason Adasiewicz grew up in suburban Crystal Lake 40 miles outside Chicago. He was introduced to the vibes when he was about 13, when his drum teacher Mr. Roak pulled the cover off this strange souped-up xylophone-looking contraption in their rehearsal room. “He played a super-loud chromatic scale with the pedal down — basically how I play now! But it was drums, drums, drums till I dropped out of college.” “College” was Chicago’s DuPaul, where he studied vibes with Chris Varga. When he arrived, Adasiewicz wanted to be a first-call jazz and studio badass. But he got over that, and came to see too much technique as an obstacle: “Learning scales and arpeggios in all 12 keys — I didn’t want my solos to sound like that. I knew I wasn’t gonna be a straight vibes player.”

In the meantime, he still played drums in indie rock bands and behind singer/songwriters, and toured with the alt-country group Pinetop Seven, all while meeting the jazz peers he still plays with now.

‘I want it to give people a show, something to watch and listen to. There’s a theatrical part to it, and a dance part, and an endurance part. I’m not interested in small movements.’

Adasiewicz’s bracing style is often compared to mid ’60s Bobby Hutcherson, with his disarming, didn’t-know-the-vibes-could-do-that clanky percussives. Vibists tint their sound using the rotors — the little spinning fans within the resonator tubes that give the notes that watery, tiki-lounge shimmer. The instrument shouts loudest when the fans are switched off, so Hutcherson often left them that way. Adasiewicz likes that blank-faced vibratoless sound, too.

“I was hearing about Out to Lunch [on which Hutcherson plays] years before I heard it in college,” he says. “But I never went through a Red Norvo or Milt Jackson or Bobby Hutcherson phase. When I tended bar in Bucktown, I did hear a lot of Hutcherson’s San Francisco, because it’s a great bar record.”

That said, Out to Lunch and the 1963 Dolphy-Hutcherson sessions left an audible dent on Rolldown, Adasiewicz’s former quintet, with Aram Shelton’s Dolphy-esque alto. The echoes are plain in “Green Gas” and “Hide” on 2008′s Varmint, the Adasiewicz record that may have greatest appeal to fans of ’60s Hutcherson or Walt Dickerson.

But where Hutcherson at his most radical kept his foot off the sustain pedal, so the bars clanked like prison chains, Adasiewicz uses pedal a lot: “With pedals up, the sound doesn’t go anywhere.” So his improvised line may build up a shadow chord, the sum total of all previous notes that haven’t yet faded. The trick is to keep the melody from getting lost in the fog. But he hits every note with such force, it pops out, gets its round pinging moment.

He will also manipulate a note as it rings on. Pressing down with a hard mallet or rubber ball, he can bend a longer bar just enough to bend the pitch. “Playing with a bow, you get overtones a mallet doesn’t get too easily, maybe three octaves above. How much rosin you use, what part of the bar you bow, how much pressure you use all affect the sound.”

Rolldown was great, but Sun Rooms feels more like his Adasiewicz’s own concept. The vibes are farther out front, and a trio is more practical for touring. The road is where the real slamming gets done.

“Playing for people at the festival who had no idea what they were stumbling on — I want more chances like that. I want it to give people a show, something to watch and listen to. There’s a theatrical part to it, and a dance part, and an endurance part. I’m not interested in small movements. Swinging the mallets from overhead — I don’t get to that point in the attic.”

Has he ever tipped over on stage? “Twice, at the Velvet Lounge and Hungry Brain. It’s really kind of embarrassing, getting back up. There’s nothing cool about it.”