Visual & Sonic Art Meld at Chicago’s Constellation


Lewis Achenbach paints on an acrylic sheet as musicians, including flutist Dalia Chin (left), perform at Constellation in Chicago on Dec. 13.

(Photo: Michael Jackson)

The 13th installment of the Jazz Occurrence series—an ongoing run of Chicago-area gatherings that pair visual art improvisation with jazz—took place at the venue Constellation on Dec. 13. The series encourages musicians who don’t normally play together and visual artists from various backgrounds to explore spontaneous creativity.

Visual artist Lewis Achenbach founded the series in 2014. By that time, he had already established a career as a visual documentarian, often sketching jazz musicians as they played, and showing them his finished art later. But in 2014 he wanted to do more than merely watch as a member of the audience: He sought a full immersion with the music and began to paint onstage, near the band.

Despite the unique nature of each of these events, No. 13 was particularly special. The night opened with the premiere of a David Weathersby documentary that tells the story of the first 10 Jazz Occurrences through interviews with artists and attendees, as well as recorded snippets from previous gatherings.

Achenbach also unveiled The First Jazz Occurrence Coloring Book, a collection of black-and-white art that encourages fans to participate.

The Dec. 13 performance featured one of the series’ largest ensembles to date: saxophonist-pianist Ari Brown, saxophonist Greg Ward, pianist Matt Piet, flutist Dalia Chin, bassists Katie Ernst and Harrison Bankhead, multi-instrumentalist Elbio Barilari, guitarist Julia Miller and drummer Mike Reed (who founded Constellation).

In keeping with the series’ spirit of spontaneity, this particular ensemble had never improvised together. The assemblage of the huge one-off ensemble—handpicked by Achenbach—challenged artists to truly listen to each other while also paying attention to the other dimension of their collective improvisation: Achenbach’s painting.

Achenbach primarily painted on two upright Plexiglas panels, one illuminated and positioned to the left of the stage and the other in the shadows to the right. The audience sat surrounding the artists on the sides and front, which allowed some in the crowd to watch the musicians by looking through the acrylic sheet. These vantage points led to intriguing interplay between the musicians and the paintings: At one point, from my seat, Chin was perfectly framed next to painted portraits of her collaborators.

Later, Achenbach used a small LED device to shed some light on the dark Plexiglas, consequently projecting a gigantic shadow of himself onto a far wall.

With the addition of visual art, the music gained new layers of meanings, and the overall performance felt like an exploration of the relationship between mediums.

“I’m hoping that an event pairing the visual and sonic will engage the brain to think about other disciplines differently,” Achenbach said after the show. He added that he would like each Occurrence attendee to leave the show with “the sense that they could do anything.”

For Achenbach, a key goal for a Jazz Occurrence performance is to get the audience to create, and to discuss what art can do—and how.

Achenbach will improvise along to the Chris Greene Trio playing the music of Lester Young on Jan. 10 at the Fulton Street Collective in Chicago as part of its Jazz Record Art Collective series.

Additionally, Achenbach will have a solo exhibition at the Reva & David Logan Center for the Arts’ Café Logan, and he’ll do live painting every third Tuesday in January, February and March.

For more info, visit Achenbach’s website. DB

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