This review appears (in edited form) in the January 2014 issue of The New York City Jazz Record.
Wheelhouse (Dave Rempis/Jason Adasiewicz/Nate McBride), Boss of the Plains (Aerophonic)
Joshua Abrams Quartet, Unknown Known (Rogue Art)
Rob Mazurek Octet, Skull Sessions (Cuneiform)
By David R. Adler
The fine avant-garde jazz of today’s Chicago is generally not piano-driven, though much of it can be said to be vibraphone-driven. That’s thanks in large part to 36-year-old Jason Adasiewicz, an evolving master of the instrument, a huge harmonic and textural asset to bands led by Nicole Mitchell, Mike Reed and others.
Of three recent releases involving Adasiewicz as sideman or collaborator, Boss of the Plains by the co-led trio Wheelhouse offers the most arresting portrait of the vibraphone itself. There are no drums; the subtly gritty and ethereal Adasiewicz sound is captured in faithful detail, even when alto/baritone saxophonist Dave Rempis and bassist Nate McBride rise to levels of furious free-jazz intensity. Adasiewicz reverses his mallets to strike directly with the wood on “Song Juan” and “Song Sex Part 2.” On “Song Tree” and the longest track “Song for Teens” he takes a violin bow to the bars to create haunting, almost electronic effects. In a freely improvised setting he’s more likely to draw on extended techniques and highlight the vibraphone’s percussiveness.
While bassist Joshua Abrams’ extraordinary Unknown Known is also bracing and free in many respects, it’s far more compositional, with a wide dynamic range and a healthy appetite for groove and swing. Adasiewicz brings a lush, enveloping harmony to the session, filling the space with sustain and unsettling dissonance. The quartet features Abrams and Adasiewicz with tenor saxophonist/bass clarinetist David Boykin and drummer Frank Rosaly.
Abrams’ writing demands close attention. The opening title track is witheringly abstract until the end, when tenor and arco bass join together in a slow mournful unison line framed by a soft sustained trill from Adasiewicz. Track two, “Boom Goes the Moon,” is 11 minutes of convoluted beauty, with an unaccompanied vibes intro and a spine-tingling ballad section filling the second half. The closing “Pool,” way uptempo, is a three-and-a-half minute sendoff, almost a contemporary answer to “Cherokee.” The band’s harmonic language brings to mind classic Andrew Hill or Bobby Hutcherson sides for Blue Note, but with a good deal more sonic abstraction (the ghostly violin bow resurfaces early on in the longest piece “Leavening”).
On Skull Sessions by the Rob Mazurek Octet, Adasiewicz is less of a dominating presence, more a counterpoint to the shred guitar of Carlos Issa, the enchanting viola-like rabeca (and C melody saxophone) of Thomas Rohrer and the cornet and electronics of the leader. Nicole Mitchell, on piccolo and flute, is a vital solo voice and an engrossing parts player, at ease with the most challenging details of Mazurek’s compositions. There’s a big forward thrust to the band’s sound, a concentration of power in Guilherme Granado’s keyboards, John Herndon’s drumming, Mauricio Takara’s indispensable percussion (also cavaquinho) — and add to that a universe of electronics deployed by several members.
Still, Adasiewicz cuts through and makes himself indispensable. He’s a key melodic unison voice on the opening “Galactic Ice Skeleton” and a captivating soloist on “Passing Light Screams” (with a brief but crucial duo passage involving Mazurek). His solo intro to “Skull Caves of Alderon” — the strange metallic sound was produced by turning off the vibraphone’s motor — gives another glimpse of Adasiewicz as experimenter, pushing past the instrument’s limits while engaging the highly physical, intuitive side of his playing.