When we meet with the members of the band Adult Jazz at a New York club during the CMJ Music Marathon, another act is doing a soundcheck. A vocalist starts (ironically?) singing Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are.” The “don’t go changin’ to try and please me” lyric leaks into the mic used to record our interview, and though the music of Adult Jazz has little in common with this soft rock classic, it’s a strangely effective moment.
The band, whose members make their home in Leeds, England, where they went to college together, have been perfecting their aggressively unique sound since their freshman year. They won’t go changin’ to try and please anybody.
“We started working on the songs about four years ago, and we were saying this week that it feels a little bit ridiculous that songs that we kind of started writing in a very vague and experimental sort of giving-it-a-go kind of way would ever give us a ticket to New York,” says multi-instrumentalist Tim Slater. “It’s been a bit surreal.”
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What makes Adult Jazz stand out is that the giving-it-a-go approach is apparent on their 2014 debut, “Gist Is,” even after so many years of sitting with these tunes. The song structures are hard to define for the first several listens, and once you think you get it, the abstract lyrics become apparent and give way to new mysteries. The pitch of the vocals is often shifted electronically so singer Harry Burgess sounds hardly human at times, but somehow in all of this obtuseness, there’s something accessible here. Live, there is a spaciousness to the songs that becomes especially apparent when you see long intervals where one or more members won’t be playing on a song.
“I think having that kind of space comes from not having a fixed setup where everyone is playing the same instruments,” says Steven Wells, who often plays drums, but sometimes takes a turn at bass.
Burgess says the decision to have the songs be so open is a matter of how members regard the material: “We are all not very comfortable plodding along and playing just one chord, so if we are not excited about it, people just kind of sit there until there’s something they connect to. There’s no point in obligatorily playing just because you don’t want to have nothing to do.”
So what about the band name?
“When asked to explain it once, I was kind of thinking on the spot,” says Burgess. “I came up with the idea of jazz being this really expressive, intuitive and childlike thing. And the idea of that music getting slightly more reined in with more formal pop structures, like if jazz were to grow up and have to get a proper job in finance to support a family.”