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It’s not that odd to find a visual artist sketching musicians onstage at a jazz set, usually from a seat in the audience. Over the last five years, however, Chicago jazz fans have become accustomed to seeing painter Lewis Achenbach standing at his easel, frequently centered over a drop cloth, often in full view of the audience, quietly producing vibrantly hued portraits inspired by the activity on stage.
As he works, Achenbach splashes broad, purposeful strokes that loosely resemble the performers but primarily convey, with startling impact, something more difficult to capture: the flow of the music as it unfolds. Local club-goers recognize him even if they don’t know his name. The musicians, however, do know his name, and most of them delight to find the soul of their creations in his work.
Their appreciation barely matches Achenbach’s own. “Music is like ink or a liquid pouring out,” he says. “And what I do is like taking a canvas and plugging it into the music itself — and then taking it out with a visual image of the music imprinted on it. I get to do that, and it makes me feel very integrated into the music as it’s happening.”
Achenbach works quickly and efficiently — I’ve seen him turn out close to a dozen small-format paintings during a single set — with a measured intensity that correlates with the improvisation on stage. Although his art does not focus on the single-line, no-do-overs technique of Zen ink-painting (as famously described by pianist Bill Evans in his liner note to Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue), it certainly descends from that lineage. And like David Stone Martin’s classic 1950s album covers, Achenbach’s paintings also “swing” visually, even if the tempos and rhythms now reflect the disruptions of 21st-century jazz. The more direct influence comes from New York artist Jeff Schlanger, who pioneered what he called “performance painting” in the late 1950s — his work since then has included chronicling all 22 of the Vision Festivals in New York — and who acted as an informal mentor to Achenbach after he graduated from New York University in the early ’90s.
Moving to Chicago in 2010, Achenbach delved into the burgeoning local music scene, and before long received an invitation to bring his gear to some rehearsals, and then to actual gigs. He couldn’t believe his luck: “I had just met some of the avant-garde guys, and only knew some other names — and then I’m in the same room doing things with them,” he says. “I realized I was putting my foot into this river of ancient knowledge. I got that churchy feeling of tapping into something deeper, and I didn’t want to give it up.” The feedback he received from the musicians — “You’re painting like we’re playing!” — reinforced his commitment, like that of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec in 19th-century Paris, documenting both the music and the surrounding scene.
Several years into this work, Achenbach felt the need to get “out of the corner; I wanted to get closer,” at which point he instituted his “Jazz Occurrence” series, where he brings the easel onstage to fully share the spotlight with music-makers. He has described these events as “a translation, or an amalgam of two languages … a meeting place of the sonic and visual arts. We have a dialogue about our future by using the tools of our past.”
He continues: “After all, these guys also talk in colors, in frequencies. And as I listen to the painting, it’s not just colors and brush strokes; it’s like the painting already exists at some point in the future, and the painting is telling me, ‘This comes next’ or ‘Make sure you don’t do this.’ Sometimes I fight it, and want to do something else, and the painting tells me, ‘You know you’re going to have to work around that later.’ And musicians have told me that they go through the same sort of thing.”
The title of his collection of paintings and drawings, Hear This Book, further suggests the synesthetic nature of his art, the subject matter of which is not restricted to jazz. Still, Achenbach’s methodology never changes, and even when painting to other genres of music he remains always, in his words, a “jazz painter.” -Neil Tesser