Today is the release day for Jason Adasiewicz's soundtrack album for Roy's World: Barry Gifford's Chicago. It's available from Corbett vs. Dempsey on vinyl in all the finest record shops (including Dusty Groove in Chicago) as well as digitally via Bandcamp. Below are some liner notes I wrote about the music.
When I first started making Roy’s World: Barry Gifford’s Chicago, I knew two things right away: music was going to be one of the most important elements in the film, and I couldn’t afford any.
Or, more precisely, I couldn’t afford to license any music from the period detailed in Barry’s “Roy” stories, roughly spanning the 1940s to the early 1960s. Which was in many ways a real shame; tunes like “Jive at Six,” by Ben Webster, "Avril (au Portugal)," by Eartha Kitt, and "Java Jive," by The Ink Spots play key moments in many of the tales. On the other hand, not being able to use that kind of music was a blessing in disguise. It necessitated doing things differently.
In 2011 I first saw Jason Adasiewicz performing at The Whistler, a marvelous cocktail lounge in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood, and shortly thereafter interviewed him for the late, great website Chicagoist. (Incidentally, it was because of an interview for Chicagoist in 2008 that I originally came into contact with Barry.) As I mentioned in my writeup, one of the elements I found incredibly appealing about Jason’s playing is that “even while assaulting the listener with intense clusters of sound, he swings like mad.” I figured that was exactly the sort of music I needed for my soundtrack, something packed with energy that could evoke the time and place while never attempting to imitate it. So I emailed Jason out of the blue. When we chatted on the phone I discovered he was already a huge fan of Twin Peaks and Wild at Heart, which I immediately took as proof that I was on the right track. Since he was about to go overseas on tour, I sent him a copy of Barry’s collection The Roy Stories to read on the plane. He loved it and we met up at Hopleaf over beer and frites to talk about the project.
I’ve been reading about composer Philip Glass and his working methods since I was a teenager, and now I was eager to try them out, especially the way in which he collaborated with Godfrey Reggio on the soundtrack to Koyaanisqatsi. Namely, Glass started composing before editing of the film had even started; Reggio then drew inspiration from the music, using its feeling and pulse as a basis for how the film was structured and cut. This workflow also seemed to dovetail nicely with how Angelo Badalmenti crafted the score for Twin Peaks: building up a plethora of music cues, recorded in dozens of alternate versions with different orchestrations, that formed a “music library” for the TV show to draw from as it was being made.
Since music was going to be such a huge deal for the film, combining these approaches sounded like the perfect way forward. But it’s actually the exact opposite of how most soundtracks are created. Typically, a film’s composer doesn’t start work until editing is well underway, writing music to order like a tailor cutting a custom suit. Splendid for a dinner jacket but not for Roy’s World.
With Jason, I sketched out a whole range of “moods” that I felt would have a place in the film. He took those prompts and ran with them. For instance:
"Write the slowest possible tune that still swings. It's the last song on your third set, and there's five people left in the audience, and everyone in the band is ready to pack it up and go home, but you've still got something left to say ..." (This became “Do More.”)
"A lullaby. Solo vibes, or a vibes/bass duet?" (This turned into “Ballad for Kitty.”)
"Saturday morning in the park, playing catch; or Roy is in the alley behind his house playing baseball with his friends." (“Walkin’ to Clinton”)
"Something Cuban, tropical, light and frothy and sunny." (“Blue People”)
"A tough guy tune. What would gangsters c. 1957 sound like?" (“Pops”)
"West Side blues. Angular maybe but raw and earthy." (“River Blindness”)
"Dreamy, sliding textures and tones. Maybe it begins as a solo and other instruments come in?" (This turned into “Sand.”)
In short order Jason laid down some demos at his home studio. When I heard them I was floored. These rough sketches already sparkled. They began to paint images in my brain. So we just kept the conversation going and he continued writing and refining. Before too long it was time to record, and then Jason assembled what can only be called the cream of the crop of Chicago’s jazz players. Joshua Abrams, Josh Berman, Jon Doyle, and Hamid Drake: these cats had all been playing together with Jason in various configurations for so long that in the studio, there was a mind-blowing telepathy among them. It was astonishing to behold. All it took from me was a little nudge in the form of a comment like “play nastier” or “lower the flame” or “let’s try that as a duet” and everyone instantly and flawlessly recalibrated. And engineer Greg Norman was on point every step of the way. I can honestly say that the two days we spent recording at Electrical Audio included some of the most creatively fulfilling moments in my life.
A late addition to the lineup of tunes was an insanely fast number originally called “For the Drummer,” which metamorphosed into “Rudy’s Basement.” It was probably the trickiest cue for the band to play accurately. After several takes they finally pulled it off and I think we all took a deep breath. It’s a personal favorite of mine and I’m so thrilled that you can listen to it now.
But the ultimate goal, of course, was to create soundtrack music that would fuse with Barry’s language and all the visual materials to make something new and beautiful. When my editor Marianna Milhorat took the rough mix of “Do More,” laid it over Willem Dafoe’s voice, and for the first time the two of us heard and watched the result, it was pure magic. This album is pure magic too. I think you’ll agree it captures a group of improvisers at the zenith of their powers. When Barry first heard this music he compared it to Mingus and Monk–and who am I to argue with that? Take my advice and play it loud.
Rob Christopher, Chicago