By Kenneth Preski
Joshua Abrams sits at a corner table in a Puerto Rican café. Salsa music from the speaker hanging overhead fills the Chicago restaurant, every song sung in Spanish. On playback, the background music is so good it makes me dance while I transcribe the interview. We discuss sound engineering, which ends with this insight from the musician: “I’m a believer that actual experience can only help things.” Not too many interviews with Abrams exist. He doesn’t seek out notoriety on these grounds. “I prefer when people want to speak about it,” he says. “It’s like, oh, okay, you’ve obviously listened to the music, formed opinions about it, now we can talk about it.” A primer of Abrams’ work, then.
Following a stint on bass for The Roots, Abrams relocated to Chicago from Philadelphia to study at Northwestern University. In the time that followed, he appeared on recordings with Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Rob Mazurek, Joan of Arc, Roscoe Mitchell, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and Fred Anderson. He was a member of both Town and Country, and Sticks and Stones. He put out an album on Delmark as Josh Abrams, explored hip-hop production under the pseudonym Reminder, and gigged around the city relentlessly, even providing “The Interrupters” film score. For the purposes of our interview, none of this interests me at all. His last three outings as bandleader, two albums with Natural Information Society, one with the Joshua Abrams Quartet, are far and away the most compelling string of local releases in years. Across from me sits an artist at a creative apex, and so I veer our conversation toward capturing insight into the method of expression.
In passing, Abrams describes his music as niche, which throws me off. His compositions in Natural Information Society sound both cross-cultural and cross-generational, music that can be played for anyone, equal parts adventurous and approachable. Through the hypnotic compositions on “Natural Information” and its follow-up “Represencing,” Abrams has achieved a rare thing: he’s made music that enlarges the listener’s sense of self. Songs that last minutes seem longer, and the songs that do run long seem short. “I was thinking about continuance, and thinking about things that have this long arc and slow development, [that] aren’t so much episodic. It’s not just one mood, but it’s a longer broad-stroke that allows room for many moods rather than the type of improvisation which kind of jump-cuts from one thing [to the next].” Even a cursory listen reveals a music full of juxtapositions. It sounds neither radically new nor subsumed by tradition. It’s unhurried, yet engaging. Improvised, yet composed. Not quite jazz music, not quite world music, not rock, not classical. “We’re trying to do a different thing there,” says Abrams. Different is the least of it.
Abrams’ orientation throughout the interview suggests that he’s one of the most self-aware musicians I’ve ever met, and not in a neurotic or debilitating way. He’s not self-absorbed or self-serving. Abrams practices a patience that grants insight into all kinds of artistic expression, listening to the sounds of life and creating fulfilling art with a deep respect for the nature of existence. His recordings operate on a different plane of expertise and grace than almost all of his counterparts. Given his recorded output, Joshua Abrams is already a Chicago jazz legend. It’s just a matter of time before everyone sits up and takes notice.
He clarifies his usage of niche to describe Natural Information Society’s music: “What I mean by that is that I think it’s specific. So one, it probably helps if the person just enjoys listening to music at all. And then secondly, that maybe they hear something that’s a little bit different, that doesn’t quite fit neatly into preconceived categories. There are many historical antecedents, and one could make different cases for where the music sits in relation to influence, but a key is being open to a music that does not fit neatly into a prescribed understanding. And then within that, it starts to open up. You can listen to it very specifically, you can listen to it more openly.” A waitress stops by. Abrams orders while an upbeat salsa tune comes to an end, his voice adjusting to the silence between songs in perfect harmony with the room’s sudden hush. He requests some sweet plantains with his meal. I double the order.
Abrams is the first to acknowledge that Natural Information Society’s albums have only been released on vinyl, and that only certain people have record players. No doubt this is what he means when he regards the albums as specific, or niche. “Natural Information” and “Represencing” share a rarefied presence among vinyl enthusiasts, with resale prices going for double the original retail cost. Vinyl sales are the only music medium still on the rise; even the digital format spent 2013 in the decline. A thoughtful musician looking for financial support is wise to embrace a culture centered around enthusiasts who by necessity must purchase the product to experience the art form in a certain context. Crate diggers place a high value on a unique listening experience that relies on an artifact that is very difficult to steal, and so they must buy vinyl until their collection is big enough to engage in the trade. The vinyl trade itself is an interesting measure of the artifact’s worth: music as subjected to the rules of the market. The cost of Abrams’ vinyl is skyrocketing as much for the limited pressings as for the astounding quality of the musical expression, without which the records would just be a loss on someone’s ledger.
While the Natural Information Society albums remain exclusive to vinyl, the Joshua Abrams Quartet made their debut on last year’s “Unknown Known” CD. When I inquire as to the marked difference in the physical presentation of the work, Abrams reveals new plans for the old Natural Information Society recordings: “The first two records are going to come out as CD releases for Eremite this year, but it was interesting being like ‘no, let’s just do it this way, and let’s not do the mp3 download thing.’ Just make it really specific, I guess, and that’s had interesting results, too. I mean we weren’t necessarily trying to rarefy it, but it did sort of make it like ‘no, this is the way to hear it,’ and that created a different sort of interest in what we were doing. But me? You know… I’m glad it’s coming out on CD. There’s part of me that wants more people to be able to hear it, too, so I like both [formats] in that sense. But I do like vinyl,” he delivers, eyes lit, revealing his true preference with a sly smile.
Given the refined focus of the artifacts, the details unique to their craft, the beauty of the artwork by group member Lisa Alvarado (who is also Abrams’ wife), Natural Information Society’s first two LPs represent a high-water mark for recent releases from the local jazz scene. To understand how they differ from many conventional jazz albums requires a bit of nuance, first about the compositional style. As Abrams sees it, “I think maybe people would debate how it sits within the improvised community. Both of those [Natural Information Society] records are very compositional even though they kind of come off… the composition is, let’s say more transparent than it is on something like [the Joshua Abrams Quartet’s] ‘Unknown Known,’ where the composition is very overt. Even on that one there are things that may be ‘oh, this seems like a vibraphone solo,’ and it’s really a written part that then leads into a vibraphone solo. I like blurring those lines a little bit. But with Natural Information Society, more of the composition is… a lot of it is given orally, a lot of it is conceptual instruction, and limitations, as much as it is, you know, ‘play this now,’ and then ‘play this now.’ So, it works a little different.” Beyond the approach to composition, an artist must also consider the physical representation of the music. “On both of those records I’m really thinking of them like records, like I want to be able to sit down and just really enjoy them as recorded statements rather than pure documents. That’s a different [approach] than a lot of the improv recordings that happen that are like ‘okay, this is this concert.’ Which is great too, but it’s a different thing.”
Abrams talks about recording “Represencing” in his apartment, a style far removed from Rudy Van Gelder’s technique, whose engineering for Blue Note captured the sound of sixties jazz, setting the genre’s standard of excellence, a sound so seductive that it’s compelling to people who don’t even like jazz. Abrams hears Dexter Gordon used to sell coffee. The music’s beautiful ubiquity is a boon to new listeners, but also causes him concern given the listening context. He mentions the ongoing trend among jazz recordings to be clean. “I try to just record things as best I can,” says Abrams, “but knowing that the sound of it will affect how it’s understood too. It’s not just balance—it’s not that everything has to be the same volume. I like things to blur the sharpness. I think a lot of what the music involves is about having things that push, but then having things that kind of blur the edges. The role of the harmonium in the band works a lot like that.” It’s an entrancing effect, one that slips the listener’s sense of time out of joint with its normal rhythm. Powerful music, to be sure, but what abstract ideas are being explored in it?
Time, for one. A compositional structure that allows for the music to develop is endemic to jazz, but it seems like Natural Information Society is after something a bit more elusive. All of their tunes ultimately hook into a larger sense of time; each song suggesting a much greater length than it actually is. Music that lends itself to a larger timescale can be used to mesmerizing effect. About Abrams’ work, he offers this: “I think what Natural Information Society does specifically is try to create environments. A longer scale gives one as a listener more time to inhabit that space, and us as musicians, too.” He describes how it feels to play it, “to get to that thing I aim for—sometimes we succeed, sometimes we don’t—but it’s like that point, sometimes runners talk about it, where you could just keep going forever… that’s where we realize we don’t have to do as much, and that the music will come on its own.” He talks about finding new details in the music, making new discoveries in the art. “It’s not just a strict repetition, but I think there’s a tendency to want to do too much.” It’s interesting to hear him describe sound so spatially, as an “environment,” for instance, but it’s clear things have to happen organically in order for the music to work, which informs the method. “To give ourselves room to let things unfurl slowly, to allow room for each of the little changes to be heard, I think longer time just gives more room for that. And then it also kind of creates a different sort of space of concentration, too, for the listener, and that’s interesting. Especially compared to now, where things just get faster and faster.” I nod in agreement. It does seem like life today demands that everything be faster. Every matter is urgent on an instantaneous timescale. Natural Information Society sounds like the antidote to that perception. I ask Abrams about the relationship between their recorded output and the spatial and temporal elements of everyday life.
He begins to answer when a waitress checks in on our table. She brings us our food and asks if we need anything else. We decline. Abrams continues, “I mean I’m sure there is. You know you look at, okay, what would this space be if this music wasn’t playing? It’s still a nice space, and it would be…” he trails off as our waitress returns. As if to emphasize the fact that we are talking about the sound of our environment, the glasses of water sitting beside the recorder on the table are refilled to dramatic effect upon playback of the interview. Ice clanging around the inside of our cups, the waitress delivering a stylized “thank you” with an uncanny accent, as though directed into the microphone for the listeners at home. It’s a snippet of sound begging to be sampled. Abrams goes on describing the relationship between music and our immediate surroundings, as expressed by the excellent salsa songs trumpeting through the overhead speakers and out to the rest of the restaurant. “There’s things about it, I would miss this music, but also I like places that don’t have music. But the music undeniably kind of effects the atmosphere of wherever you are.” Abrams is aware of the art form’s sway, and with song titles like “Sound Talisman,” and an album called “Represencing,” one wonders about the intentions of a music that simultaneously encourages deep concentration and passive enjoyment. As he sees it, “The titles point to possibilities of ways of looking at it, or ways of, you know, ‘represencing,’ thinking about history a little bit, thinking about bringing things that once were present back, giving them a new context in some sort of way.”
In a secular society, with knowledge subjected to empirical standards, an occasion where the only acceptable basis for truth is measurable data, musicians are tasked with being metaphysicians. After all, there must be magic at work when cutting a track that makes people groove. Is the artist a snake-charmer, or a mystic? Abrams plays the guimbri, which is an instrument imbued with a supernatural sense through its cultural heritage. Does he feel that spirituality when playing? Is there something beyond the notes? He takes a moment to consider his response. “I think the history of the music has always been intertwined with the spiritual, sometimes overtly, sometimes less so. Listening to Coltrane as a young person I was drawn to his embrace of the spiritual. It is a personal thing. I was in the house band for years at the Velvet Lounge Jam Session, and had the privilege of playing there as well with many bands led by musicians of the AACM. These experiences had a big effect on my outlook. There have been many moments in the history of jazz that overtly recognize the spiritual aspect of the music. And the aspect of mystery. And now maybe that is less acceptable to acknowledge than it was in different historical moments. But when I got into it, that always seemed palpable to me, even back as far as when I was playing hip-hop on the streets of Philadelphia. So it’s always been something that has drawn me to the music.” Abrams is familiar with this line of inquiry into artistic expression, but also recognizes trends in art where it would be taboo to discuss its spiritual aspect. “People go there to get a certain nourishment, you know, creative nourishment. People need that.” I can hear that aspect of his work, even if it’s instrumental. The music speaks without words.
To Abrams, it’s a familiar feeling. “I would get that so much, I mean going to hear Fred Anderson play, I don’t know if you ever got to hear him in person, but it would just be like ‘whoa!’ These things are palpable. It’s very hard to put into words exactly what it is, but you know you leave the experience and your state is changed in a certain way.” The image of Anderson hunched over his horn, an elder statesman of Chicago jazz like few others ever were, and Abrams sharing the stage, pops in my head. The power of Anderson’s presence was potent. “It has nothing to do with him trying to profess anything. It’s just him letting the work show up. And that was always such a stunning thing, that when he passed it was… after, I don’t know, a year and some of the initial grief passed, it hit me, where do you go to get that… you can’t go anywhere to get that. I mean, I can put on a record, and that’s great, I love to listen to his music on records, but it’s a completely different phenomenon.” Abrams talks about how rich the jazz tradition is. He mentions recently seeing Benny Golson, age eighty-five. “Yeah, that’s mastery. That’s that thing in a different manifestation.”
He starts to think of his own work given this context in the genre. “With Natural Information Society, I still see it as part of this jazz universe, but also it’s like, well, we don’t necessarily need to be involved in too many of the tropes of it.” Other tropes are too alluring to pass up. “We’re trying to create things to get to a certain point of concentration. Jazz does this too, and that’s where I see the amazing thing about composition within jazz; however it is, more open, or more specific. But it’s like, here’s a key, or a spell, or something that you can use and it will lead into, whatever, fifteen minutes of this space. It pushes you in an interesting way, depending on who is navigating it.” A spell? A key? A run? A melody? These are the primary ingredients which expose a new perspective to consciousness. “You hear someone like Benny Golson, or a master, just play on a blues and all of a sudden it’s like ‘whoa, it’s totally new again.’ Because everything is always… you’re always recreating everything. Sometimes having a different form or a different twist or turn helps as much as anything. And just the same, forms that are supposedly cutting-edge, or free improvisation, can be the same ground covered again and again if the practitioners aren’t mindful. But by and large, I think there are a lot of people practicing free improvisation here in Chicago who are mindful of keeping the music vibrant.” It may sound complex, but Abrams’ approach actually represents a move toward simplicity. “I’m saying all this to get away from the linear notion about composition becoming more open or more complicated, or this sort of thing, because I think there’s a trend in jazz that it’s like, ‘okay, now it’s gotta get more complex,’ more this, or that. Okay, maybe not, maybe it just needs to sound good.” I laugh, and apologize for making him talk through his meal. He waves me off. We are silent for a moment.
I begin to try sorting out the different approaches to Natural Information Society and the Joshua Abrams Quartet based on the use of the guimbri and the double bass exclusive to each respective group, to which he responds, “No, I play bass in Natural Information Society. There was some recorded for ‘Represencing’ but then I ended up not using it.” This gets him started on his release plans for 2014. “In the coming year, a couple things are going to come out. One is reissues. Or, the first issue of the CD, depending on how you look at it. Let’s call it reissues of the first two records on CD. And then, an issue of a new vinyl record will also come out. It’ll be a double record.” Another album with Eremite, this time a double LP at the encouragement of the label’s founder, Michael Ehlers, promises to further expound upon the proven method already documented by the first two Natural Information Society recordings. Hamid Drake, Jeff Parker, Emmett Kelly, Ben Boye, and Lisa Alvarado all play on it, and Alvarado will also provide the artwork, her third album cover for the group. During live performances, Abrams, Kelly, Boye and Alvarado will be joined by two drummers, Frank Rosaly and Mikel Avery. Says Abrams, “we’re working on some new material too, so there’s sort of these different things that are coming, but in both the bass will kind of reappear. I’m kind of curious how I can effectively move between the two.”
As a bandleader, Abrams’ willingness to be open-hearted is paying back dividends. The core of the group remains consistent, while players fade in and out, leaving the compositions better cultivated in their wake. There’s a consistency, but Abrams wants it to keep evolving, to not be static, so the musicians keep finding surprises in the music. The unforced, organic approach is profound, but easy. Is this what he means by Natural Information? Abrams describes the allure of putting the concepts together, even if they seem somehow conflicted. Treated delicately, it can work. “We’re doing some sort of research or some sort of work,” he tells me. “We’re doing this in some ways almost as a study of nature.” I suggest they’re conjuring nature through their ability to evoke a certain sense of things. Things don’t have to be so explicit, or immediate. That’s what makes the music so difficult to talk about. It’s hard to discuss the art, and to ask Abrams to explain it to me, when really that takes away from the majesty of it. What makes it so alluring is that the listener just gets it, but what exactly it is remains unclear.
Abrams nods. “Yeah, we’ll never name it all the way. That’s a good thing.”
February 27 at Constellation, 3111 North Western. 9:30pm. $10. 21+.