“I’m not somebody who is into jazz because of the scene or the style. It just nailed me as a kid,” local musician Chris Jonas says. He’s staring directly at me, and it’s intense; there’s a lot going on behind his eyes, but it mostly makes me think he’s some kind of weird genius.
“When I was in 6th grade, my dad wanted to go to Sears to buy a ratchet set,” he continues, “which was weird, because he was about the least handy guy you can think of, but in the basement of Sears they sold records; two for two bucks, I think. And so he said, ‘Son, you choose two and I’ll choose two,’ and I was like, ‘Hell yeah!’”
Dad chose albums from Glenn Miller and Les Brown. Jonas wound up with some old Count Basie recording and a late-1970s Duke Ellington release. “Of course, I had no idea who that was, but when I came home and put it on, it freaked me out,” he says. “It was late, weird Ellington, and I had this spiritual experience; I sensed that the music was these dark wires coming out of the record player. Beyond that was music, and it was this infinite void. … What do you do with that? It stayed with me, and it wasn’t because I liked jazz. It just resonated something inside me.”
See? Weird genius. But it was the catalyst to everything he’s become, seemingly innocuous though it may be. “I was the kid who’d lie on my back and stare at clouds during recess and I didn’t know what to do with myself,” Jonas says. “Music then just slowly took over my world.”
"I was the kid who’d lie on my back and stare at clouds during recess."
He would eventually attend Oberlin College as a composer at first—but, he says, “I got my feelings hurt because they regarded the saxophone as a ‘novelty instrument.’ Their words, not mine. I tried being a poet, but in the end I wound up on the outskirts of the conservatory. As an artist, I think we’re controlled by something that comes from the inside. … It’s fucking agony.”
So how does a musician who feels no particular affinity for jazz wind up writing for and leading what we might call a jazz trio? Well, a lot of it depends on your notion of genre definitions. Who’s to say one man’s chaotic and personally mnemonic translation of music has to be labeled anything in particular? And since when did jazz own the rights to chaos or improvisational and sometimes beautifully fractured musical explosions? It certainly doesn’t occur much to Jonas, though given his time on the periphery of experimental arts collective High Mayhem some years ago (we use the term “experimental” very loosely, since we know HM kind of hates it), it makes sense that he’d shirk the concept of neatly packaged and labeled arts. Still, there’s an undeniably musical quality to his cacophonous experiments. Think about what it might have been like if David Byrne had locked himself away to pursue classical training, or if the weirdos of jazz—as we are wont to describe it, anyway—like Mingus or Monk had existed in a world where the technology of creation was practically limitless.
The sounds I’ve heard created by Jonas defy conventional explanations like, “Oh, it sounds just like this or that”—and yet, they sound almost terrifyingly familiar, like the soundtrack to an unsettling recurring dream you’ve had since you were very young. The man is a maniac, which I say with no small amount of admiration and with the understanding that all truly great artists are at least a little unhinged.
See Jonas perform alongside drummer Will Dyar, bassist Ron Lundberg and Dan Pearlman on the cornet. Yeah, that’s four, but we’re still callin’ them a trio. There will be much for the jazz aficionados to appreciate, certainly, but also for those in search of something at least a little different.
“In my experience, you create material that’s as evocative as possible,” Jonas says. “Sometimes they resonate in ways that you think you don’t know what it means, but then, if you just try to connect the dots…” He trails off as if another, more important thought suddenly shot into his brain. That’s OK, though, because I totally know what he means.
Chris Jonas Trio
7:30 pm Friday Jan. 6. $20.
GiG Performance Space,
1808 Second St.