Musician Profile: Jazz Pianist Nicki Adams

Meghan Farnsworth

“Oh, I’ve got a huge outie,” Conservatory senior Nicholas “Nicki” Adams laughs as he stands by the piano. “Have you heard of the belly button snatcher? Yeah, I read about him once when I was a kid, and I was so scared of him. He would snatch belly buttons!”

With his bright, generous smile and light laugh, jazz pianist Adams is a strong yet innocent personality who has charmed many on the Oberlin campus. Today, he is clad in loose, worn pants and a borrowed sweater aged with holes. Yet it is his shoes that draw my attention even closer: sage-green sneakers with holes in the toes.

Adams’s approach to life, as well as his approach to music, is as unique as his shoes (not to mention his belly button). A vegan and a passionate student of philosophy, he has a staunch system of beliefs that also hold true to his distinctive musical compositional style. “We live in a virtual reality. Always with headphones on, Facebook, texting — it’s a dangerous line to walk,” he says of his attitude toward life, as well as playing music. “It cuts you off from the world around you, and if you go around living this way, you will never grow.”

This philosophy holds especially true for jazz musicians, who must find their improvisational “voice” — that is, their phrasing and harmonic structure — via a constantly evolving growth process. According to Adams, players can only discover their “voice” through their own life experiences. “Learn from your mistakes, and you will grow even further from your realizations,” he advises musicians.

Although the stigma surrounding improvisation seems to be a musician’s ability to play ad hoc, Adams also believes form and structure are integral to the mastery of improvisation, which he refers to as “experimentation in creating the forms out of which to create.” “Improvisation is commonly assumed to be synonymous with openness,” he says. “Yet to reach this openness, one has to have an established idea of form. After all, form is a central part of life. You have your way of living life day in and out, meeting people and so forth. Throw this to the wind, and you are throwing out a key component of life.”

The importance of structure also informs Adams’ interest in philosophy because philosophy uses structure as a format for investigation, and to question basic life assumptions. For Adams, a structured thought process allows him to delve deeper into the way he thinks and feels about music. “Form presents an infinite number of results,” he says. “Philosophy helps you realize the basic nature of things. The more basic you get, the more internal everything becomes. Then it grows out and evolves into something more external.”

Adam’s artistic process also adheres to the actuality of self-discovery. “It’s a step-by-step process. You create, see what you have done and mess with it some more,” he says of his compositional process. “You might hear it differently on multiple listenings. What’s funny is, in reverting back to your original idea after you have added changes, you think, ‘Wow! That’s what I was going for.’ Then you have arrived at the true essence of your piece.”

According to Adams, the players who comprise an ensemble are even more crucial to his writing process. He believes that a composition can only come to fruition through the combination of each musician’s style and “voice.” “You know, that’s what really makes a piece “happen” — how [musicians] shape their solos and come back to the melody,” Adams says, crediting the musicians he regularly plays with as influencing the development of his voice. “The players who really bring this out … best pick out the way you shape your melodies — where [they] go and end.”

Adams also strongly advises against looking only to the jazz “greats” (Bill Evans, Miles Davis, and others) for inspiration. “Young jazz players will transcribe the greats, and learn their licks, but you can’t just jump into that,” he cautions. “[The greats] got those licks because they put their sweat and blood into them … you have to find your own way.”