Howard Reich’s Chicago Tribune article on Lewis Achenbach Oct 2015:
|Howard Reich Contact Reporter|
|Who’s that guy sketching during Chicago jazz shows?|
October 6th, 2015 1:45 PM
Perhaps you’ve seen him at the Green Mill or Constellation, seated close to the action, focusing intently on the musicians, glancing down at his sketchpad then looking back up at the stage.
His arm moves constantly, reaching for certain colors, applying them to paper, creating forms and shapes and rhythms that reflect what he hears.
Most people in the audience may be relaxing, reveling in the music, sipping a drink, whispering to a friend, pondering. But Chicago artist Lewis Achenbach is busily at work, attempting the impossible: to capture a most elusive music — jazz — in visual form.
Achenbach has been haunting Chicago’s jazz rooms and festivals for the past three or four years, he estimates, chronicling in thoroughly personal terms the city’s ever-expanding jazz landscape. He moved here from San Francisco in 2011, was struck by what he encountered and decided that he had to respond.
“I realized the Chicago scene is every night,” says Achenbach.
“The scene out here is so rich, and most of the guys are so humble about what they’re doing. And they welcomed me.
“This scene needs to be documented,” adds Achenbach. “I know there’s photographs. And going off on a slight tangent, (consider) a Louis Armstrong record. You listen to it, you see photographs. I’d think: That’s probably not what it was like to hear the music live. It’s like watching a video of a video of a video.
“What must it have been like to hear Louis Armstrong live? It must have been new. It must have blown your mind. So I thought this is my job: Use my gifts to document what’s happening. It’s very rich now. I feel like I’m plucking fruits from a very fruitful tree.”
Indeed Achenbach has been practically ubiquitous at Chicago’s jazz shows, drawing Herb Alpert and Lani Hall at City Winery last Thursday; sketching Henry Threadgill at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival last month; documenting an eruption of sound during the 50th anniversary concert of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) at the University of Chicago’s Mandel Hall last April.
I’ll leave it to the art critics to weigh the merits of this work, but there’s no question it gets at the vibrancy of the music in deeply idiosyncratic terms. Achenbach’s images — crowded with color, punctuated with long lines and surging with energy — express not only the vitality of Chicago jazz in the 21st century but his own ardor for it.
Much of his work zeroes in on the jazz avant-garde, musicians experimenting boldly in work that avoids traditional concepts of melody, backbeat, harmony and structure. Adventurous audiences flock to this idiom in Chicago, a nexus for jazz experimentation since the dawn of the 20th century. In gravitating to music by Threadgill, Roscoe Mitchell, Ken Vandermark and other iconoclasts, Achenbach is celebrating a core identity of Chicago jazz.
“I think it takes a certain kind of person to not only enjoy that kind of music, but put yourself in a room where this can be challenging,” says Achenbach, citing a 2014 performance by the explosive Chicago Reed Quartet.
“These guys are all playing at the same time — some people run out of the room. I find when I’m drawing, it helps me listen. It occupies part of my brain so I can hear.”
“I’ve also drawn Colin Hay,” adds Achenbach, referencing a pop singer-songwriter best known as frontman of Men at Work. “I know what songs he’s going to do.
“But with creative (improvised) music, it’s wide open. It’s me going along with their courage … kind of like my version of sky diving. I have no idea what’s going to happen. It’s kind of scary, because I do sometimes work my way into a corner. The challenge is: How do I get out of this?”
But jazz musicians, who similarly invent their art as they proceed, often find themselves in quite the same quandary, trying to extricate themselves from a puzzle of their own making. That, of course, is a large part of the risk and thrill of the art form, and the parallels between the musicians’ struggles and Achenbach’s may help explain why so many players have allowed him to sketch their shows (he always asks permission in advance, he says, and “if someone says that’s not OK with that vibe, that’s cool”).
In perhaps the ultimate compliment, some musicians have incorporated his work into theirs. Most recently, flutist Nicole Mitchell, cellist Tomeka Reid and drummer Mike Reed have used an Achenbach original as cover art for their forthcoming album, “Artifacts,” a celebration of the AACM’s golden anniversary.
Achenbach’s circuitous journey to this point began when he was a teenager in the Philadelphia area and discovered jazz, quickly transitioning “from Iggy Pop to Pharoah Sanders,” as he puts it. He studied film and animation at New York University and became enchanted with the work of New York artist Jeff Schlanger, who long has been at the forefront of painting live jazz performances.
With Schlanger’s blessing, Achenbach says, he took up the cause in Chicago and eventually began creating what he calls Jazz Occurrences: live jazz performances in which he invites the audience to watch him paint and to enjoy a concurrent exhibition of various artists’ work (the next Jazz Occurrence will be Saturday night at Constellation). In this, too, Achenbach is building on the work of his elders: Chicago drummer-bandleader Kahil El’Zabar long ago was staging multimedia music-and-art happenings here and around the world.
Though Achenbach supports his family by working as a “laborer, house painter, tradesman,” he says, he sees his jazz work inevitably taking over.
“I paint in the day, I go out late at night,” says Achenbach, who believes the free-flowing nature of jazz has become a guiding principle in his life.
“I find that listening to improvisational music, especially live, really makes you more adaptable to your life situation.”
We all have to improvise in life, in other words — jazz shows us how.
“Portraits in Jazz”: Howard Reich’s e-book collects his exclusive interviews with Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald and others, plus profiles of past masters such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday. Get “Portraits in Jazz” at www.chicagotribune.com/ebooks.
Please go to the PRODUCTS page to make your purchase. Original artworks are available for $100 or $200 and the funds will go directly to the artists of the Jazz Occurrence project.
If you’ve seen a drawing you would like, and it is not in the products section with a paypal button, please let me know (email@example.com) and I will make that drawing yours.
Below are some of my most recent works, Bio, CV and a place to buy and see HEAR THIS BOOK-Achenbach in Chicagoland-Documentary Sketches 2012-2014.
Thank you, for your interest and patronage. -LA
A Jazz Occurrence is defined as a union of the Sonic Arts and the Visual Arts. A JAZZO is a performance in a creative environment of something close to complete freedom, forming, essentially, a third hybrid exponential enlightening art-form. The idea is to capture the ‘frequency in the room’ on canvas.
The Jazz Occurrence is a documentary in progress, combining concert footage, painting performance, audience reaction, musician interviews and animations.
The Jazz Occurrence project supports the notion that creative music is vital and progressively positive and therapeutic.
The JOAE (Jazz Occurrence Art Exhibition) is a traveling show; a caravan of artistic experimentation.
About the Artist:
Achenbach has collaborated with master filmmaker Michael Sporn on several storybook-to-film shorts, such as Chris Raschke’s “Yo! Yes?” for Weston Woods and “Sylvester and the Magic Pebble”, as well as numerous spots for HBO and WGBH’s Between the Lions. He has a background working with drug addicted teens and mentally ill elders as a behavioral health specialist. RHSA Inc. sponsored a solo show of 100 Achenbach works in June, 2008 in Ashland, Pennsylvania in the historic Masonic Opera House as ‘Contained Chaos’; a self-curated, magnetic wall, site specific installation. Collaborative mental health based efforts were displayed on the street level, as part of the event. At the SCCA (Schuylkill County Center for the Arts) Achenbach showed work with Geoffrey Beadle and Michael Mahalchick, and later with NY artist Lance Rautzan in 2010, curated by artist Missi Allen of Walker Street Studios. In New York, he participated in the Brooklyn Artillery in the fall of 2009, curated by Alison Brady, and took part in the Brooklyn Artists Gallery 50/50 Fundraiser June 2011 NYC. Achenbach has been a supporter and participant of Pottsville, PA’s Block of Art from 2010-present, curated by Jack Hirshfeld. In Illinois, his ArtXposium Railway Station site-specific installation happened in May 2011 in West Chicago, curated by People Made Visible. Achenbach created a raw footage film titled TSVARNOHARNO which premiered April 13th 2012 @LaSpiaza Downtown Wheaton Illinois, live soundtracked by Preyas Roy of Eigenfunk and the Vincent Davis Ensemble. Lewis was asked to teach graffiti arts at the ArtCrew/studio in schools project : May 18th 2012, Pleasant Hill Elementary School. Lewis Achenbach’s documentary paintings of Jazz in Chicagoland have shown at Gallery200 West Chicago twice solo as “Off the Golden Map” and as “Prestissimo and Preciosismo”, at the Elastic Arts Foundation Chicago as “Achenbach in Chicagoland” and at the Fulton Street Collective as part of their ‘Jazz Record” series curated by Maya Haddad. He has been the on point artist for the first two Israeli Jazz and World Music Festivals, supported by the Israeli Consulate of the Midwest. On May 23rd of 2014, Achenbach began to record his “Jazz Occurrence” project with filmmaker David Weathersby of SubVerseStudios and David Zuchowski of Davernoise, beginning with the Vincent Davis Achtet (Ari Brown, Harrison Bankhead, Mars Williams, Scott Hesse, Preyas Roy, Jim Baker, Vincent Davis and Lewis Achenbach). The Second and Four Jazz Occurrences featured members of VOLCANO RADAR (Julia Miller, Elbio Barilari, Tim Davis, Rollo Radford, Edward Wilkerson Jr., Harrison Bankhead and Lou Ciccotelli). This blastocystical Jazz Occurrence film curates the marriage of the Sonic Arts and Visual Arts, in a free form documentary style composed of interviews with artists and visitors, multi-venue performance footage and Achenbach’s own animations derived from his live sketching gigs. Like Jodorowsky in his early films, Lewis is present out of necessity to the creation, but hardly the focus. The subject is the experience created and the reactive ‘take away’.
Achenbach published a book of his jazz artworks in HEAR THIS BOOK/Achenbach in Chicagoland/Documentary Drawings 2012-2014. The book is a sketchbook document supported by quotes from the venue organizers and depicted musicians. The book is available at the Glen Ellyn Bookstore and at the Dupage Art League in downtown Wheaton. He also illustrated Macbeth and Gilgamesh for the Chicago Public Schools in 2013/2014 with “Play in a Book.”
Lewis Achenbach, founder and producer of the Jazz Occurrence, was born in Fayetteville, North Carolina, Fort Bragg in 1971. He has a BFA in Film/Animation from NYU.