Joshua Abrams and Natural Information Society: Mandatory Reality

Slow down. That’s the message that pulses, softly, insistently, and repeatedly, throughout the runtime of Mandatory Reality, the new album from composer and bassist Joshua Abrams and his group Natural Information Society. Recorded live at Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio studio in Chicago, it is the most patient album from the group in a long discography full of them. Playing the guimbri, a three-stringed African bass with enough percussive possibilities to allow it to serve as a self-contained rhythm section, Abrams leads his seven collaborators, which include Ben Lamar Gay, Hamid Drake, Lisa Alvarado, and other members of the Chicago improv and experimental scene, into a world of longform possibility. The songs here are long: the first two, “In Memory’s Prism” and “Finite,” add up to more to than an hour of sound, and are followed by two shorter, though still considerably lengthy songs.

“We’ve been extending our live performances over the last three or four years,” Abrams says. “At a certain point, I realized that a combination of extending the performances and reducing the material gave us an opportunity to go further. At first, maybe we’d play a 75-minute set with six pieces or seven pieces. Now, that’s down to one or two pieces. That lets us take our time more, it invites us to enter a different type of listening, be at a more relaxed pace, even if the music moves quickly. Those opportunities are there more, stretching it out.”

The approach invites the listener to do so as well. Like 2017’s Simultonality, the new record is an enveloping and hypnotic listen, wedding formal minimalist approaches to spiritual jazz, German kosmiche textures to Gnawa trance music. But Mandatory Reality differs in terms of rhythm, removing the driving drum kit from the scenario in favor of Drake’s tabla and percussionist Michael Patrick Avery’s gongs and tam-tam—a more impressionistic set of percussive sounds. “We go in phases a bit,” Abrams says of the shift away from the drum kit for this particular effort. “At times, I’ve been interested in wanting to ‘de-industrialize’ the drum kit a bit.”

Though modal jazz of Pharoah Sanders and Freddie Hubbard aren’t always readily associated with the minimalism of Steve Reich or Julius Eastman, Abrams says the connections between the styles are foundational: “You often see collaborations between various figures—Don Cherry and Terry Riley, Harold Budd and Marion Brown. It’s kind of shining a light on those connections, which are for whatever reason considered a little more separate.”

Recognizing bridges between sounds has been one of the guiding principles in Abrams’ long career. He started off in Philadelphia, where he was a member of the Square Roots, a precursor to hip-hop stalwarts the Roots, before immersing himself in the Chicago experimental music scene, where he played with fusion-minded groups like Tortoise and Town and Country. The latter, which played chamber jazz with an avant-garde tinge, serves as an early indicator of Natural Information Society’s trajectory.

“[Harmonium playaer] Jim Dorling coined this really great descriptor for [Town and Country], calling it ‘back porch minimalism,” Abrams says. “Some of that aesthetic has continued with me. Something I’ve tried [to do with NIS] from the beginning…is create a space where all the little changes could be felt.”

That openness, the sense of possibility, space, and most importantly, freedom, makes Mandatory Reality feel like a balm in our hyperspeed times. We often don’t allow ourselves the luxury of experiencing individual, focused moments. The music Abrams seeks to create not only celebrates the possibility of focus, but widens and expands its boundaries.

“For me, it gives the musicians the opportunity to slow down, to try and take the approach of savoring what we’re building together,” Abrams says. “If we can get to that space, you notice the focus broadens and zooms in at the same time.” | j woodbury

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