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Photograph courtesy of Lisa Alvarado
In Morocco, the Gnawa people conduct an all-night healing ceremony, Lila Derdeba, to cure everything from soul loss to scorpion stings. At the center of this ritual is trance music composed around the guimbri, a lute made from a length of wood, covered in camel skin and outfitted with three goat-gut strings. Chicago bassist and composer Joshua Abrams doesn’t use it as a literalist or folklorist, wisely realizing it wouldn’t be possible out of context anyway. Instead, he writes music respectful of the instrument’s origins but inspired by his genre-jumping background playing with The Roots, Tortoise, Town & Country, and a number of free-jazz ensembles, including Sticks and Stones (featuring brilliant alto-sax player Matana Roberts).
Even after adding loops and psychedelia to the mix, the result never sounds like bricolage, but rather a thing whole and new. Tracks like “Sound Talisman” (from 2012’s Represencing) are dense but not busy, and carry true emotional weight, like a fragment shaken loose from some Western equivalent of an all-night healing song. Backing Abrams is a set of Chicago musicians venerable in their own right: harmonium player Lisa Alvarado; drummer Frank Rosaly (of Roberts’ Chicago Project and Joan of Arc); guitarist Emmett Kelly (who’s played with Bonnie Prince Billy and The Cairo Gang); and free-jazz multi-instrumentalist Ben Boye on autoharp. As always, New Music Circle makes a brilliant match between the musicians and the venue, which in this case is the otherworldly Joe’s Café, with its giant chicken statue, mazy courtyard, and neon-bathed, neo-vaudevillian stage.
We talked to Abrams by phone a few weeks ago in advance of this Saturday's concert; an abridged and edited version of the conversation is below.
I wanted to start to start by talking about the guimbri; that’s going to be the most exotic piece for most people. So maybe we can start with how that instrument came into your musical practice.
In 1998, I went to Morocco for a little bit, just a couple of weeks. Something that helped guide me, let’s say, is that I had heard this instrument, but I didn’t really know much about what it was. There, I got to witness it in person and learn a little bit about how it was done, just a little bit. And then I kind of worked with it, I brought it back, I would play it, but I would be back and forth about it. Then the great drummer Hamid Drake would often just ask after it, have you been playing this? That was the encouragement that I needed. I don’t know when it was, but I started playing it more. I did a recording with Hamid and Fred Anderson, the late, great Chicago saxophonist and proprietor of the Velvet Lounge, called From the River to the Ocean. I played it on there, and then from then on it became just something I focused on more. I’m aware of the tradition, I continue to listen to it and understand what I can of it; I’ve also just tried to develop my own voice in some ways on the guimbri. And in other ways, the guimbri sort of dictates a lot of its own thing, too. So it’s been an interesting back-and-forth between bringing my own compositional approaches to it and it showing me a lot of how it functions, and then also just trying to put the guimbri in different contexts than it often appears. So that’s a lot of what we’re trying to do with the different iterations of Natural Information Society. Some of the music is not necessarily guimbri-oriented, though the guimbri lends itself to the type of space we are trying to create, often kind of long-form and hypnotic or meditative spaces. At the same time, we have a lot of room for the exploration of rhythm, and the exploration of layers.
Can you talk about the name Natural Information Society, and how it relates to what you guys are trying to do musically?
That is the title of the first record, and it was under my name, but it just seemed to fit. It’s an interesting combination of something, two very commonplace words, but you don’t usually hear them together, I guess. To explode it out, it’s got both a sense of how we perceive nature, but also how we perceive the rigor of knowing something, or attempting to know something. Then it seemed after that good to call the group a Society. It’s a little more open than perhaps some other band names. The whole idea of the band is that it can change in certain ways, that different people can kind of come and go, as long as they understand some of the concepts and know the music. A lot of it’s about listening, but it’s a structure that can allow for a lot of improvisation but also very specific improvisation, rather than just totally free improvisation. So a Society seems to be a good banner for that. It also acknowledges Don Cherry, who had a group called the Organic Music Society. So it has a reference to Don and his wife Moki, who had this group together. I thought that was nice. In a different way, too, the group—this is even broader—but I had an experience with Damo Suzuki, who was the singer from Can. He has a group he calls it his "network." And he more purely improvises, but when I played with him, I found that what he brought to it was so strong and specific, that inevitably we were playing his music. As a musician and as an improviser, I know musicians from many places, so I thought it would be interesting to create an ensemble that could encompass some of them, and yet not be totally just be free improvisation. Although I really enjoy playing free improvisation, and continue to do so, but this is aiming at something slightly different, let’s say.
It seems like there’s a very strong, and very specific environment for improv and jazz in Chicago. You’ve been there for 15 years, right?
Yeah, I’ve been there even longer, really. Basically I’ve been playing out in the Chicago scene since about 1994, ’95. There have been different periods, different moments where the different scenes kind of cross-pollinated more…there was a series at some of the rock clubs, and then I think that even when one club stopped doing it was able to move to another one. There’s a series by Mike Reed and Josh Berman at the Hungry Brain, and that kind of expanded. There is a series at Elastic Arts, run by Dave Rempis. So those give a regular place for people interested in playing more free or improvised types of music. Just very simple door gig type of situations, there’s nothing really fancy, but it provides some continuity. The Velvet Lounge closing was a big blow to the scene, but recently Mike [Reed] opened up a venue called Constellation, which is really nice. That’s been a really great place. So places come and go, but there is always been a really strong vibrant music community here. For me, it was kind of cross-pollinated more at other moments, but that might just be where I’m at.
So, can you talk a little bit about your own cross-pollinating and genre-crossing? You do a lot of it, and I think it can be hard to do without the result sounding mushy, or derivative.
I think genre’s just one way to understand music. It’s a possible way. But there are many ways. I don’t want to say ignore it, because I think it’s good if you are playing, whatever kind of music, to understand it the best you can. If you get drawn to something, to respect it—though that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to completely adhere to whatever rules [the genre has], you just have to understand what makes something vibrant and living. I have just have always been drawn to situations that seem like ‘Oh, yeah, this is exciting,’ because it’s different, or because of the integrity of the performers or the creativity of the musicians. [[Like] working with Emmett Kelly, who’s an amazing guitarist and songwriter, he’s got a great band called The Cairo Gang. He has a different approach than sometimes we’ve worked with. Jeff Parker, he comes I guess more from in some ways a rock and roll place, but he is also into so much a broad spectrum of music. It might seem like you’re hearing a genre, or you might just be hearing someone’s voice. Like Emmett brings a certain voice. It’s about trying to allow space for everyone’s voice to be heard in the group, and for us to get to a place of continuance, where the music can just keep going, more than it being, OK, now it’s one person’s solo, or anything like that. We’re just trying to get to a space where the music can go for a long period of time, and where we can get ourselves very focused, and then hopefully provide a place for the listener to get to a different place of concentration, or a slightly slower place of concentration. It’s almost like we are trying to create an atmosphere for that. And so that’s kind of maybe steps out of the realm of genre, and grants itself more to the function of the music.
Speaking of the band, can you talk a little bit about who will be playing with you here in St. Louis? Emmett Kelly’s coming with you, right?
Yes, Emmett’s coming, and Lisa Alvarado, she’s playing harmonium and some percussion. Ben Boye will play autoharp. Frank Rosaly and Mikel Avery are playing drums, so we’ll have two drummers. Ben, Emmett, all three of us have played, at different moments, with Bonnie Prince Billy. Ben is a great piano player and plays all the keyboards, but also he’s been working with electric autoharp, which has been really interesting. He has developed this chromatic autoharp, so that’s usually what he’s playing in the group. He’s a great improviser. Lisa is also a painter; she’s done all the art for the covers. The harmonium brings an even slower arc to the music, which is really helpful to all of us, because there is a lot of activity, and the harmonium helps give a broader, slower pace to it. So that is very valuable to the music. Frank plays with tons of people around Chicago in the improvised scene. He leads his own groups, and there’s a more overtly jazz quartet that he plays in as well. We did a record on RogueArt that came out last year, with David Boykin and Jason Adasiewicz. And Mikel Avery also plays both jazz and improvised music with a lot of folks around town. He plays a lot with the artist Theaster Gates. I’ve worked with Theaster a fair, bit, too. I guess everyone in the group has been on tour except for Ben, this might be Ben’s first tour with the band, though Ben’s played with us for a while. But it’s nice to bring a slightly larger group anywhere, cause it’s just hard to travel.
The last Natural Information Society record came out in 2012—is there anything in the pipeline as far as releases?
Yup, there is. It’s done. It’s just sort of awaiting its final mix. And that’ll be out this year. I believe it’s going to be a double LP. That’s a slightly different lineup. Emmett’s on it, he and Jeff Parker are both playing guitars on it, and Hamid Drake plays drums and percussion on it, and Lisa and Ben both play on it as well. That’s through Eremite. Possibly even before then, Eremite is going to be, I don’t know if it’s considered a reissue, but an issue of the first two records on separate CDs. So it will be the first time the music’s been available digitally. So that’s exciting, too, because I know there have been people who have been wanting to hear it, or who wanted to have a copy who don’t have a turntable, so that’ll be interesting.
I guess there was just a decision somewhere along the way to release those as vinyl-only….for audiophile purposes? Was it a sound thing?
It’s just kind of what we liked the best. And that was the way it seemed like, OK, let’s just kind of release it on vinyl. I guess it had an unintended result, which was interesting. It wasn’t our plan. Everything is so flattened, because it’s so instantly available. So if you say, well, maybe this isn’t available…then what? The decision to not put out on mp3, it was like, yeah, let’s try to encourage people to hear it as-is, like this is how it should sound, this is how it should be experienced, the art, and the way it looks.
New Music Circle Presents Joshua Abrams’ Natural Information Society on February 22 at 7:30 p.m. at Joe’s Café, 6014 Kingsbury. Tickets are $20, $10 students with ID. For more info, call 888-662-7851 or visit newmusiccircle.org.