The one word that keeps coming up when talking to Adam Schatz is “more.” “I hope we can define it more as we do more and more stuff,” the New York musician says of his amorphous collective, Landladyland. “The songs are going to feel more connected to each other,“ he says of a new album. “I’d really like to write more songs that are just for voice and saxophone.” And then most tellingly: “I’d like to be doing so much more and going to so much more.”
But it’s hard to imagine Adam Schatz doing more than he already does. He’s a polymath with a strong footing in the jazz and pop worlds: an organizer, composer, arranger, singer, writer. And he was at the eye of a veritable musical hurricane at the 2nd Annual Landlady Holiday Spectacular last Sunday, one of, if not THE biggest and most joyous DIY show in New York this year.
“Almost any of the stuff I do, no one is saying, ‘please do this.’ There’s no reason,” Schatz tells me by phone. He’s traveling in between rehearsals, but ten minutes in, he arrives at his car to find a flat tire. “It’s okay, I kind of thought I would,” he tells me. No problem, full steam ahead. Call a mechanic; write some horn arrangements; meet with backup singers.
He doesn’t need anyone to tell him what to do: he is the engine in a great DIY vehicle, the spider in the center of the web. Adam Schatz is not yet 30. He’s a ferocious jazz saxophonist who is an organizer for the excellent, diverse Winter Jazzfest. He’s a nuanced keyboard player. In some form or another he’s turned up on Vampire Weekend and Sleigh Bells records. And he fronts his own rock band Landlady, a cackling blend of pop earworms and avant-garde impulses, whose album “Upright Behavior” was released last year to acclaim.
And before the show on Sunday, Schatz is scurrying around The Bell House, giving hugs to the dozens of musicians arriving, leaving, and milling about. Like Santa’s bag of toys, the Landlady Holiday Spectacular is designed to be overstuffed. Over the course of the night, some forty (fifty? sixty??) performers will take the stage within skits, digital shorts, comedy routines, a horn procession. And here’s the crux: not one of them is getting paid. This is a benefit for We Make Noise, which provides music classes to under-served Brooklyn kids. Which means that this show is simultaneously all about Adam Schatz, but not about him at all.
At the moment, a group of those teenagers from Bed-Stuy are sound-checking to A Tribe Called Quest’s “Can I Kick It?” while guitar legend Nels Cline quietly set up his pedals and Schatz oversees a group of horn players learning their parts in a side room. Somehow, none of this feels incongruent. “The one true positive element of the holiday zone is just extreme togetherness. If you can pull that off, it’s really just about celebrating what you have and flexing the community,” Schatz says.
Schatz acknowledges that the holiday season can be “oppressive.” His solution, then, is to turn the focus onto the music itself. The performers include some of Schatz’s closest musical allies, like singer Cassandra Jenkins and Isaac Gillespie, who is Santa tonight, as well as connections forged across genres and states. He’s recruited R&B singer Nick Hakim, who mixes antic dancing with shrewd slow jams; Big Thief, who hammers out big-hearted screaming guitar rock n roll; Eli Paperboy Reed, who shreds his vocal chords over 60s soul.
The ultimate show of Schatz’s power and community building is when Cline, currently in Wilco, takes the stage, or rather, sits on the side of the stage with his back turned. A friend of Schatz’s from the jazz community, he’s essentially agreed to the sideact as Landlady sets up, and starts slowly, teasing out sustained notes and manipulating a pedalboard. And while sticking a solo ambient jazz guitarist near the end of a concert might seem like a risky move, a rapt crowd soon forms around him silently, taking in every brusque low note and spidery arpeggio. As he trembles away, banging on an effects pedal with his palm, and as cross-dressing versions of Danny Elfman and Tim Burton practice their lines backstage, you can hear the walls of convention crumbling.
The crowd has been standing for three and a half hours by the time Landlady hits the stage at 11:30. Anyone itching to hear the soaring melodies of “Upright Behavior,” including me, is disappointed, as the band eschews the material completely. But Schatz never aims for ease or familiarity. Instead, they dive into cuts off the new album, which was recorded in June and is slated for release next year. (“I know it’s good. That’s all I know,” Schatz says matter-of-factly of the project.) Tempos speed up and slow to a crawl; tricky, taut chromatic lines clash with baroque harmonies and squawking guitar. There’s a quality of bigness, and a glowing sense of adventure in the new songs: you get the sense that Schatz, more than ever, is trying to reach the far corner of the room.
The lyrics explore Schatz’s peculiar brand of joyful existentialism. “Trying to tackle life and death is a steady thing for me,” he says. “I have to think about it whether I want to or not. That appears to be how my brain is working.”
Then the group lets loose on a set of covers: no matter how inventive their own songwriting, they’re firmly and gleefully tied to their predecessors and compadres. On John Cale’s “Paris 1919,” the band is joined by 5 singers, 5 horns and 2 upright bassists, and soon slides into an epic, uninhibited jam. Hendrix’s “Manic Depression” gets scorched earth treatment, with Landlady guitarist Will Graefe and Cline blasting away as Schatz staggers around the stage like a man possessed.
The performers on stage have every right to be exhausted, but there’s another kind of energy at work. “We look at all these things written with time slots are like, okay, this will be good, as long as everyone does their job,” Schatz says. “And then, when you’re actually in a room, where things bounce back and forth, then you’re just like, ‘oh my god, what am I feeling!’ It gets you to the next level. That’s what I’m chasing. I’m chasing the feeling that I don’t know what it’ll feel like.”
The night reaches that level, and ends, with a quivering version of the late Allen Touissant’s “Yes We Can Can,” as Schatz trades howls with Gillespie, and the audience breaks into pockets of dance. It serves as a fitting capstone for Schatz’s mission: to constantly push you slightly out of your comfort zone, daring you to dream bigger, be more ambitious, unite just a little bit more.