Joshua Abrams Discusses Solo Bass and the Spirit of Music


Joshua Abrams performs Sept. 2 with the Jason Stein Quartet at Millennium Park during the Chicago Jazz Festival.

(Photo: Michael Jackson)

The film projects you’ve contributed music to seem to be oriented around a political message. But I don’t sense that your music generally is political.

You can take that vantage point, but there is a certain politics to doing free, improvised music or doing creative endeavors in general, trying to live an artistic life. At the same time, working on films is a job that I like, and it also works better when I can get behind the film. So, it’s been a happy pairing, working on these documentaries that have this social focus. The music’s sometimes pointed that way. I tend to keep titling more veiled. Sometimes it’s more overt, sometimes it’s playful.

It’s been fortunate work. Before that point, I was more making my living touring—I still am touring. It’s also being a sideman, even if you’re a creative partner in different endeavors when you’re making things up. I’ve worked with different people as a bassist for years, but you might not recognize that.

All my experiences inform the music I make. They’re helpful in terms of the soundtrack stuff—it’s having a more diverse pool of experiences. It just lets you have a broader voice, lets you pull from more music. It also shows you different ways to approach being a bandleader, what you appreciate as a sideperson and what you didn’t—all of it.

Everyone’s different, too, temperament-wise. But people get ready to play in different ways and deal with challenges of the road differently. Two people who I’ve worked with who are masters of that in different ways; one person was Hamid Drake. He’s worked with so many people and been through so much—and just the person he is. He’s just conscientious of the other musicians and creates a good situation for us. Another person I was working with, Bonnie Prince Billy, he’s very cognizant of having a stimulating time and energizing time. You know, taking the steps to ensure that it doesn’t fall to someone else. That’s a really important experience for me, and I try to get to that as best as I can.

Some folks might not know that you played on The Roots’ first album, Organix. How’d that come about?

I met Ahmir [“Questlove” Thompson] playing in a kind of scholarship jazz combo for this place called the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia [as teenagers]. We played in that and became friends, and through him, I met Tariq [Trotter, who performs as Black Thought]. Maybe about a year later [in 1991], I graduated and went to school out here at Northwestern University and then I went back over the summer.

I was turning 19 in the summer and Ahmir asked was like, “Let’s go play on the street.” It was me, Tariq, Ahmir, another emcee named Kenyatta [Warren] and Malik [B., an emcee]. It grew from there. We were busking, we’d go to open mics, we’d go to parties, we’d go to whatever; there started to be more formal gigs and I did a slew of them. I’d come back and got to do a very memorable gig at a place called the Painted Bride. The Roots were opening for Amiri Baraka. Even as a 19-year-old, I had an appreciation for what he was—that was momentous to me.

That experience is a large reason why I’m a musician. I think I wanted to be a musician; I was in love with the music, maybe in some ways more focused on certain ideas about what jazz was. The thing that I got from working with The Roots—I got a lot of things. But the major thing was what I felt was the spirit of the music, of living the music, when you know something is completely correct.

It made me realize, I had to pursue this. It gave me something to measure against: Is it producing this sort of energy? I’m not talking about aesthetics, I’m talking about focus or a feeling for yourself. I’ve felt that through things I’d do later, even if they’re disparate, aesthetically.

That was a guidepost for you?

It just kind of shows me an early measure of my thinking something was artistically valuable. I didn’t articulate it to myself that way then. But since then, I’ve worked as a jazz musician and kind of continued to be a student of the music, as well, and honor the music through my time working at the Velvet Lounge. Or even before that, working on the straightahead scene here.

I see the separation, in terms of aesthetics. Certain situations call for a different language or certain ways you do or don’t follow traditions. But a big part of what jazz is to me is to find the thing that makes it living. And sometimes that’s learning new things or discovery.

Especially with solo playing, I try to push it to somewhere different—that’s what I was trying to do with the record—and to explore. With Natural Information Society, that also fits within the canon of jazz music. It’s interesting seeing how it’s perceived. Sometimes, it seems like a lot of people who cling tightly to their idea of what jazz is are hesitant to include it. On the other side, sometimes, people who … I’ll just leave it at that. DB

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