By Aaron Cohen | Published June 2019
Joshua Abrams & Natural Information Society knows how much power comes through movements that might at first appear sparse, but take on stunning resonance with each added layer. The group’s eight members are all strong improvisers, but here they emphasize minimalism over complex harmonic changes and favor a series of subtle sonic shifts over virtuoso solos.
While Abrams has been a bassist in several adventurous Chicago jazz groups since the mid-1990s, here he plays the three-string guimbri—a Moroccan lute—almost exclusively. The instrument’s origins are key to Natural Information Society’s ceremonial vibe.
“In Memory’s Prism,” the album opener, unfolds slowly with Abrams and autoharp player Ben Boye repeating phrases that add more resonance over time. While each musician’s personality seems secondary to the ensemble’s movement, distinctive contributions become clear over repeated listenings: The dialogue between alto saxophonist Nick Mazzarrella and bass clarinetist Jason Stein is one standout exchange within this wave. On “Shadow Conductor,” Hamid Drake’s emphatic percussion becomes more pronounced, but Lisa Alvarado’s harmonium has as much to do with controlling the piece’s rhythmic movement.
Mandatory Reality concludes with the six-minute “Agree,” as the group plays dissonant wooden flute lines that echo the work of late multireedist Joseph Jarman. It’s a comparatively brief closing statement, but no less compelling than the epics that opened this journey.
Mandatory Reality: In Memory’s Prism; Finite; Shadow Conductor; Agree. (81:39)
Personnel: Joshua Abrams, guimbri, flute; Lisa Alvarado, harmonium, gongs, flute; Mikel Avery, tam-tam, gongs; Ben Boye, autoharp, piano, flute; Hamid Drake, tabla, tar, flute; Ben Lamar Gay, cornet, flute; Nick Mazzarella, alto saxophone, flute; Jason Stein, bass clarinet, flute.