The next chapter of the Natural Information Society is here. Since Time Is Gravity, credited to Natural Information Society Community Ensemble with Ari Brown, presents a newly expanded manifestation of acclaimed composer & multi-instrumentalist Joshua Abrams nearly 15 year, 7 albums &-counting flagship ensemble. Joining the core NIS of Abrams (guimbri & bass), Lisa Alvarado (harmonium) Mikel Patrick Avery (drums) & Jason Stein (bass clarinet) are Hamid Drake (percussion), Josh Berman & Ben Lamar Gay (cornets), Nick Mazzarella & Mai Sugimoto (alto saxophones & flute), Kara Bershad (harp) & Chicago living legend of the tenor saxophone Ari Brown. Recorded live to tape at Electrical Audio & The Graham Foundation, cover painting Vibratory Cartography: Nepantla, by Lisa Alvarado.
Since first developing Natural Information Society in 2010, Joshua Abrams has been gradually expanding the group’s conceptual underpinnings, its musical references & the sheer number of the group’s members. Its music is, in a sense, an expansive form of minimalism, based in repeated & overlaid rhythmic patterns, ostinatos & modality. Its roots, its scale & its meaning become clearer in time. If time is gravity, it also allows us to carry more. Having begun as fundamentally a rhythm section with Abrams’ guimbri at its core, the version here can stretch to a tentet, including six horns.
Abrams has been expanding his minimalism gradually, but he has long understood a key to minimalism’s potential: the breadth of its roots in the late 1950s & early 1960s, ranging from the dissatisfaction of young European-stream composers with the limitations of serialism to the simultaneous dissatisfaction of jazz musicians with the dense harmonic vocabulary of bop & hard bop. The former began exploring rhythmic complexity & narrow tonal palates in place of harmonic abstraction (Steve Reich’s Drumming, Philip Glass’ Music with Changing Parts; perhaps above all Terry Riley’s In C & his late ‘60s all-night organ & loop concerts); the later reduced dense chord changes to scales (signally with Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, but rapidly expanding with John Coltrane’s vast project). In the 1950s the LP record opened the world with documentation of Asian & African musics, key influences on both minimalists & jazz musicians. If John Coltrane’s soprano saxophone suggested the keening shehnai of Bismillah Khan, the instrument was rapidly taken up by two key minimalists, LaMonte Young & Riley, similarly appreciative of its flexible intonation, the same thing that kept it out of big bands.
If the guimbri, the North African hide-covered lute that Abrams plays with NIS, involves a rich tradition of hypnotic healing music associated with the Gnawa people, Abrams’ music also touches on other musics as well — other depths, memories & healings, different drones, rhythms & modes. As the group expands on Since Time Is Gravity, he has made certain jazz traditions in the same stream more explicit as well. If there is a mystical & elastic quality involved in the experience of time, both in direction & duration, you will catch it here. The parts for the choir of winds expand on the roles of Abrams’ guimbri, Mikel Patrick Avery & Hamid Drake’s percussion & Lisa Alvarado’s harmonium: at times, the winds are almost looping in the tentet version, each hitting a repeating note in turn, at once drone & distinct inflection on temporal sequence. The brilliance of the work resides in Abrams’ compositions, the NIS’ intuitive execution & in Ari Brown’s singular embodiment of the great tenor saxophone tradition, including the oracular genius of Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, & Yusef Lateef. The three pieces by the expanded NIS featuring Brown —the opening “Moontide Chorus” & “Is” & the ultimate “Gravity”— have an immediate impact, & togther might be considered a kind of concerto for tenor saxophone. Here Brown presses almost indistinguishably from composed melody to improvised speech, getting so close to language that he might have a text. Everything here is a sign. Note the tap of the Rhythm Ace that links “Moontide Chorus” to “Is”, the attentive heart always present, even when signed by a machine. There’s a link here to the methodologies & meanings of dub music & the linear & vertical collage of beats, textures & tongues: treated with reverence, a sample of a beat-box can be as soulful, as hypnotic, as a mbira or a tamboura. If those pieces with Brown are heard as a suspended concerto, the three embrace & enfold the other works, like the sepals of a flower. That placement will also touch on the mysteries of our perception of time.
Particularly in “Is”, but elsewhere as well, a phenomenon of transcendence arises in which time appears to be tripartite, at once moving backwards & forwards & standing still. This is an act of technical brilliance certainly, but also an illumination of music’s ability to represent temporal consciousness through polymetrics. This particular listener has only heard it before in a few places, including the horn shouts & bowed basses of Coltrane’s Africa, in moments of Charles Mingus’ The Black Saint & the Sinner Lady, in certain pieces where tapes were literally running backwards, & earlier still in Dizzy Gillespie’s Cubana Be, Cubana Bop, in which the composer George Russell & conguero Chano Pozo found a music that spoke at once in the voices of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring & the vestigial rites, rhythms & songs of the Yoruba language & Santeria religion of inland Cuba.
In Joshua Abrams’ compositions & the realization of them by the NIS, in the time of one’s close listening & memory thereof, distinctions between the “natural” & the “social”, the “quotidian” & the “transcendent” are erased, suspended or perhaps irrelevant. Consider two of the ensemble pieces, one named for nature, the other social science. In “Murmuration” the repeated wind figures of flute & alto saxophone combine with the interlocking patterns of harp, guimbri & frame drum (tar) to create a perfect moving stillness, not an imitation but a witness to the miracle of the starlings’ astonishing collective art, a surfeit of beauty that might be the ultimate defense tactic.
“Stigmergy” takes its name & concept from the Occupy movement’s Heather Marsh, who proposes a social system based on a cooperative rather than competitive models, one in which ideas are freely contributed & developed as ideas rather than an individual’s property. In its form, Abrams’ “Stigmergy” is the closes thing to traditional jazz, a series of accompanied solos by each of the wind players. However, the composed accompaniment is a radically collectivist notion: a repeated rhythmic figure, call it ostinato or riff, in which the different winds each play only a note or two of the figure, a concept both more collectivist & individualistic in its conception than any typical unison figure. It suggests another of the underlying recognitions that propel the Natural Information Society, the group as social organism, the teleology of hypnotic anarchy, all parts in place, functioning systematically, evolving & expressing itself, its nature & society, as a transformative organism.
George Lewis has described music as “a space for reflection on the human condition”. This suggests that, rather than a “distraction”, at least some music might serve as a distraction from distraction. It’s a focus, a clarity, a awareness, an external invitation to interiority, as if music itself is a model for form & contemplation, an organism contemplating for us or as us. If that is a possibility, & I am sure I have heard such musics, than this music is among them. How many of our rhythms, melodies & harmonies (cultural, historical, biological, psychic) might such music carry, translate & transform in the particulate ecstasy of our own murmuration? (Stuart Broomer, April 2022)