Joshua Abrams :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Joshua Abrams’ artistic decisions are always deliberate and specific while the lines between his compositions, album art, live performances and personal life remain blurred. Each of these four facets flow and overlap into the other, complementing and enriching the sum of the parts. Abrams’ compositions for his band Natural Information Society are well thought out yet always have room for exceptional musician involvement. His album art is arrived at through lived experience with his partner Lisa Alvarado and adorns the stages where the two perform with NIS. The group’s live performances are grounded in compositions and simultaneously flow through the moment.

As Abrams explained in a contemplative Zoom call, “I think that the music gets confused as being just all improvised or a jam, which it’s not; it’s really specific.” He continued, “I try to write where it’s not so overt what is written and what is improvised. It’s like the whole thing is written and the whole thing has room for making decisions. And maybe that’s what improvisation is, the moment of decision.”

For over thirty years Abrams’ uncompromising artistic vision has been a vibrant inspiration to other improvising musicians, composers, fans and listeners of contemporary creative music. His devotion to transcendent composition writing and ecstatic, hypnotic live performance has been unwavering. Abrams is only involved with projects of the highest caliber, as evidenced by a longstanding collaboration with the superlative creative music label Eremite Records, a collaboration reminiscent of Bob Thiele’s production of John Coltrane for Impulse! Records. A singular and remarkable artistic achievement.

Few musicians of his generation can match Abrams’ extensive discography. Abrams has been an in demand musician for decades, both on the acoustic bass and the North African guembri, a three stringed skin-covered bass. Discogs shows that he is associated with approximately 140 different projects. His first appearance was on “Organix,” the debut recording of legendary Hip Hop crew The Roots. Abrams has also recorded with alternative Chicago pop groups like Town and Country and musicians such as Sam Prekop. As a member of the house band at Chicago’s legendary venue The Velvet Lounge, Abrams performed with top Chicago improvisers like Fred Anderson, Nicole Mitchell, Chad Taylor, Hamid Drake and others.

The core of Abrams’ artistic output are the seven albums he has released on Eremite Records, starting with 2010’s Natural Information, released under his own name, and culminating with the April 2023 release of Since Time Is Gravity, credited to the Natural Information Society Community Ensemble, the largest formation of the group to date. Never standing still, always moving forward, each of these albums pushes into new, deeper territory for Abrams and his cohorts to explore. An unending, upward artistic sweep of achievement that will be one of the lasting legacies of our time.

On April 19 of this year Abrams sat for a Zoom call in the Chicago home he shares with his partner Alvarado, backed by one of her signature glowing artworks. Abrams expressed his life’s work with the same reflective purpose and dedication he brings to his art. He discussed his Jewish upbringing, working with The Roots, jamming with Chicago’s finest improvisers and his unparalleled Eremite albums. | d mittleman

Aquarium Drunkard: It’s an honor, and I feel it’s a privilege, to talk to you. Thank you for being generous with your time.

Joshua Abrams: Thanks for the support and interest.

AD: Let’s talk a little bit about your roots, specifically Jewish roots. I’m Jewish, and whenever I have the opportunity to talk to another Jewish person who’s a musician, I do like to touch on that a bit. What are your Jewish roots? And does that affect who you are as a person today?

Joshua Abrams: I was raised Jewish and that continues to be part of who I am today.

AD: Did you have a Bar Mitzvah and that whole process?

Joshua Abrams: Yes. Judaism exists as a culture as well as a religion, so perhaps I lean more on the cultural side of my experience. It’s influenced how I see the world, and to some degree how I am seen.

AD: I identify as a cultural Jew. You know, I’m not super religious, I grew up reformed as well. For me, it’s the Jewish art, culture and history that’s fascinating. That’s what makes me feel like I’m a Jew.

Joshua Abrams: Like I said, I was raised Jewish in a Jewish household, and it’s formative to who I am. How I understand the world and how in some ways I’m understood by the world. Judaism is not monolithic. There’s common experience, and there’s very different experiences and opinions about what makes up the culture. It’s a deep subject, as is talking about the aspects of anybody’s identity. There are artists who…, I don’t know if I have a connection with them because of Judaism, but the work of Bob Dylan, or Steve Lacy, or Lou Reed or Morton Feldman has been formative. I think it’s difficult to parse out where lines of culture, religion & identity meet and are separated. And some of that has to do with history. Some of that has to do with America. So it’s complicated to articulate what I take from my experience with Judaism.

AD: Thank you for sharing that. And another part of your roots, so to speak, is The Roots, the band from Philadelphia, who you started out with. And then many years later in 2022, Natural Information Society played on the same stage as The Roots at the 2022 Pitchfork festival. Can you talk about your time back in Philly with The Roots and how that affected who you are as a musician?

Joshua Abrams: I got to know Ahmir Thompson, who is now known as Questlove, at the Settlement School of Music. There was a jazz combo that we were both in together and that’s how we met. That was my last year of high school and we stayed friends. Even back then, he was a polymath genius and knowing him had a big influence on me. We’d hang out, check out music, movies, shoot pool, you know. The summer after my first year of going to college, he called me up and he and Tariq had been playing in Fairmount Park the previous weekend. He asked if I wanted to come join them the next weekend. So that summer, we would play every weekend, on the streets of Philadelphia. We’d busk, sometimes get other gigs or find other venues to perform. And it just flowed.

Before that experience with Ahmir and Tariq I loved music, I was studying it, and I thought maybe I could be a musician. After that experience, I had to do it, it calcified for me that I had to be a musician somehow and follow the music. It gave me a standard of what music could do, energetically speaking. It felt that charged; had that much life. This was only an intuition at the time, something I experienced making music with them. And so I’m grateful to them for that. We’ve stayed in touch from time to time over the years, but to get to share the stage with them, with Natural Information Society, that was very sweet, and to catch up, post pandemic, post a lot of time, a lot of changes. Yeah, that was a beautiful day.

AD: And you were brought in at the last minute, weren’t you? You were kind of a replacement band.

Joshua Abrams: That’s true.

AD: So maybe it was meant to be?

Joshua Abrams: Don’t know. But it was a very fun day and a great meeting. They sounded awesome. And to have the chance to present a large version of NIS with Ari Brown for that audience, to expose tons of people to Ari’s sound and have them cheering him on. That was really lovely.

AD: At a certain point you became aware of the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) in Chicago, and you moved out to Chicago. Can you talk about your memories of that milieu, and in particular, Fred Anderson and The Velvet Lounge? Some of the other AACM members like Wadada Leo Smith, and the Art Ensemble left Chicago, and became internationally famous, whereas somebody like Fred Anderson chose to stay in the community in Chicago. Can you talk about that period of your life?

Joshua Abrams: Yes. Part of the brilliance and beauty of an organization like the AACM is that it fosters individuals pursuing their own unique vision of creative music. That’s how I understand it. I can talk a lot about someone like Fred Anderson. His reach and influence is vast, on so many musicians, fans of the music, in Chicago, but really all over the world. Fred was a person who brought people together. He possessed a deep intelligence that showed itself through kindness, and showed itself through generosity and of course, his music. He created the venue, The Velvet Lounge, not just for himself, or not just for his friends, but for musicians to pursue creative music, to try to find their voice, and to grow their vision.

I met so many lifelong associates and unbelievable people at the Velvet. I met David Boykin there. Through David I met Nicole Mitchell. I first played with Hamid Drake there. There was a period where I got to play with Jodie Christian there, once a week. During a different period I would play there every week with Matana Roberts and Chad Taylor and this eventually led to the band Sticks and Stones. I first started playing at the Velvet by joining the house band for the weekly jam session. Michael Crystal had been playing bass in the house band. At the time, the session was led by trumpeter Billy Brimfield and the drummer Ajaramu.

I went to the session one time. Then the next week, Michael called me to sub out. And then the next week, he asked if I wanted to do the gig permanently so I accepted without hesitation. At first it was just the session on Sundays, then the music started to expand to more and more nights. And sometimes I’d find myself playing there four, five nights a week with different groups, and then going there and getting to hear concerts by people like Ari Brown, Avreeayl Ra, Fred Hopkins, Malachi Favors and of course Fred Anderson and Hamid Drake.

Fred embodied an understanding that dealing with the music was about the work one puts into it. And talking with him he shared an understanding about the power of this music, and the seriousness of it, without having to express it on overly heavy way. Anytime i showed up to the Velvet early, I would find him practicing his horn. Then he would either be taking admission at the door or tending the bar all night. The best part of the session would be when he came out from behind the bar and joined the band at the end of the night. That was always a thrill, Fred would propel the music to a whole other level. He remains one of the greatest practitioners of the tenor saxophone that I have ever heard. I can’t have enough praise for him. On one hand, he’s known by those who know, but he’s not known enough. There’s not enough appreciation for someone like Fred, because he was really trying to provide a forum for so many people finding their voice; every generation that kept coming to the Velvet. At the same time, he provided an example of an artist pursing music at the highest level and he remained committed to evolving as a musician throughout his entire life. It’s difficult to sum up. But that was the epicenter of music for a certain time for me.

AD: That’s great. The Velvet Lounge is a place I’ve read about but never got to visit.

Joshua Abrams: And I’ll say this, too. You know, Chicago is a notoriously segregated city. Fred created a house of music that bought people from all over Chicago, from the north side, south side, west side, everywhere, people would come to The Velvet Lounge to hear this music. People would come from all over the world to hear this music and to play there as well. Luminaries of jazz would come through. I remember playing on a session one night when Roy Hargrove sat in, for example. I got to meet & first play with Kidd Jordan there. We recently lost Kidd; another legendary musician. 

He and Fred, they were like brothers. And because Fred had created such a familial situation, I got to know Kidd in that context, too. So yeah, I can’t give enough appreciation and respect to someone like Fred. So many of the musicians working now, especially from Chicago, but even beyond Chicago, are in his lineage, or at least connected with the spirit of what he was bringing through his music. So I’m grateful that I was able to play there.

AD: Natural Information Society began to form around 2010. Could you talk about how you formed your own group?

Joshua Abrams: I wanted to bring together different aspects of the music that I had been exploring at home through recording. But I wanted to find a form that I could present live. At first it was just me solo playing guimbri, bass, percussion and a MPC. And then I did some shows with a drummer named Nori Tanaka but he had to move back to Japan. Then as a trio with Frank Rosaly and Emmett Kelly.

The group became a forum for me to write music around ideas of continuance with a focus on rhythm and shifting repetition. Music that’s inter-layered and web like versus having one voice on top of another. Eventually, that became the first record, “Natural Information”. After the record came out I started calling the group, Natural Information Society. And the first tour was with Mikel Patrick Avery playing drums, and Lisa Alvarado playing percussion & electronics. Shortly thereafter, Lisa switched to harmonium and that’s stuck. On that first tour we started incorporating Lisa’s artwork into our performances as well.

AD: What’s the process of incorporating Lisa Alvarado’s artwork with the music?

Joshua Abrams: We were excited to collaborate and Lisa was generous to share her work on the covers. We felt, “let’s not wait for an invitation, let’s present this work ourselves and bring it along on tour.” I should note that she was making large scale free hanging paintings. They are big enough in scale that they work well on the stage and change the character of a performance space. So it’s a way that we bring some of our energy & sensibility to the stage. They change the experience, both for ourselves and for the audience. At the same time, our works’ process has happened in parallel. It was never like, “Oh, you translate the music, or I translate the art.” It’s more a process of living together and working together and thinking about living. This is what has emerged.

AD: It seems that the music like the art has evolved over time.

Joshua Abrams: Everything evolves.

AD: And somewhat related to that is the question of how the pieces, the compositions are put together. I understand that you are the primary composer. What is your process of composing?

Joshua Abrams: Yes, I write the music for the group. I’ll write on the piano, or from my head to manuscript, and sometimes on the guimbri, or the bass. I’ll make sketches, write them out, & also mock them up with recording. I’m writing with the intention that the pieces are somewhat malleable. So they’re written for improvisation that revolves around a process of negotiating the material through micro-improvisation.

I think about blurring the lines between “composition” & “improvisation”. On the new record, two of the three pieces that Ari plays on have long melodies. For example, the first four minutes of the piece Is is written. And yet, part of the magic of what Ari can do, is take something written and make it his own, and bring so much energy and life to it. To different degrees that’s how I try to write for the group as a whole. So each person has their part, but they also have possibilities for expanding or varying the part. Once we play a piece live, more possibilities are revealed. It is very specific material with specific parameters. There are ways everyone’s encouraged to explore and use their sound and use their musicianship so that we can get to new places. Something I would like to mention, is that I wanted the band to be a forum where all of us as musicians could learn while we’re doing this process. So that it is not a static execution, but it’s a process of learning, ideally, every time we play. I think that’s part of what keeps the music vital.

AD: How do you work with the line between improvisation and composition?

Joshua Abrams: I like to make music that blurs that line. Sometimes I think that the music gets confused as being just all improvised or a jam, which it’s not; it’s really specific. I try to write where it’s not so overt what is written and what is improvised. It’s like the whole thing is written and the whole thing has room for making decisions. And maybe that’s what improvisation is, the moment of decision. As improvisers I think we develop the ability to assess what needs to happen in a given moment. At the same time, I think maybe the moment that one writes, and thinks of a melody, or rhythm, and puts it to paper, that might be a moment of improvisation too.

The way I look at composition, it is a bit like a recipe. It’s alchemical. It’s a way we configure our actions to get to another place. But there’s always a lot of unknowns. There’s the unknown of the space, the sound of the room, the audience, ourselves, how we are at any given time. So it can never be the same. We need to make adjustments and these adjustments involve improvisation. Sometimes it can be extreme, you know, “let’s take this off the rails”. It’s still coming from the place of where we started. It’s still a realization of the piece. Sometimes it’s playing the music very strict and yet there are subtle details that are always shifting. Both ways are valid and both ways are improvisatory and compositional. But there is a lot of forethought for all the pieces on the recordings.

The recordings are often the first time we perform many of the pieces. Then we to go on tour and they evolve.

AD: Another part of your art is the titles that you use. For me they’re interesting and poetic and some of them are words I’ve never heard of and some of them I think they’re words that maybe you tweak for your own usage. Can you talk about titling your work?

Joshua Abrams: Yeah, I think that’s accurate. Sometimes it is playing with words to make something new: “Automaginary,” “Simultonality.”

AD: “Represencing?”

Joshua Abrams: Represencing is a word.

AD: Oh, OK! Re-presencing, I see, I didn’t know that word.

Joshua Abrams: “Magnetoception” was a concept that Lisa was researching, and we both felt that idea seemed to fit the music. So some of it is the play between Lisa and I, some of it is just, thinking on the feeling that you want to associate with the record. Sometimes it’s more like a subtitle. For example, “descension (Out of Our Constrictions),” there was a strong relationship with the music of John Coltrane on that recording, as is true for most of our records, but especially on that one. Something of the sound of Evan [Parker’s] soprano and Jason’s bass clarinet, and the space we were occupying. But it seemed that it was not an Ascension, that moment in time felt a little like the world was going down, but behind the title there was also, the idea of keeping life afloat through getting down.

And then it felt like there is a relationship with George Clinton’s music, too. And so that’s why there’s that quote, “Out of Our Constrictions.” So it’s honoring all of that. Usually, the title is an attempt to put the music in a different setting than a known place. I like to find a title that leaves space for the music and the listener’s imagination.

AD: Yeah, absolutely. I hear that. And it’s great, how the title, the composition, the artwork, the package – it all just kind of adds to each part, and reinforces the other. The sum of the parts is greater than the whole.

Joshua Abrams: I’m glad it feels that way. We’re fortunate enough to have a home with eremite records and to work with Michel Ehlers. He puts a lot of energy towards making sure that the LPs are realized as meticulously as possible. And he is a deep listener of lots of music, so we’re grateful to him for his perspective, too.

AD: Before we talk about the new album broadly, I’d like to talk specifically about Ari Brown, who you’ve worked before. Could you talk about what he brings to the group and specifically what he brings to Since Time Is Gravity?

Joshua Abrams: Ari brings a profound intelligence and depth of experience to the music he plays. He’s a part of a great Chicago tenor saxophone lineage. You think about musicians like Johnny Griffin or John Gilmore or Von Freeman, certainly Fred Anderson and Gene Ammons. It goes back, and Ari upholds this tradition and furthers this tradition. What I’m talking about isn’t just a musical tradition, but it’s also a tradition of the tenor saxophone being a profound technology that makes humans feel better. Yeah. You hear certain people’s sound and, “Okay, life is a little bit better.” Ari consistently does that. So for him to share that special ability with NIS is an honor and so generous of him. On top of that, Ari, can look at some writing, and make it his own. And then expound on it in ways that I might not have imagined.

For those listening to the new record, I would recommend checking out for his vocalization through the horn, especially on that last piece, “Gravity.” It’s incredible. We had a concert the night before the session, playing different music. We played “descension (Out of Our Constrictions)” as a large group. We got together and rehearsed “descension,” but also rehearsed this new music that I had written. At first I hadn’t written Ari’s melodies, and then I realized, there was a need for that structureSo he either rehearsed them once or read them on sight in the studio. But he is able make something his own so easily, and he can understand the music’s intention. These melodies are long and glacially slow. And that makes sense to him. He and I had worked together before on some of my film score work. The first was a score the movie The Trials of Muhammad Ali. He played on that one and several others. He always raises the music up.

AD: It’s great, because he fits right in. I’m familiar with his work with The Awakening, which is a different type of thing. He can just shift and jump right in.

Joshua Abrams: The tradition of The Awakening has informed Natural Information Society. I’ve been lucky, Ari will call me sometimes when his bass player Yosef Ben Israel can’t make a gig. To get to play with Ari’s group is always a real privilege.

AD: Fred Anderson brought people together in his lifetime and you seem to be doing the same now. Not that you’re replacing him, but you’re continuing the tradition of bringing people together.

Joshua Abrams: Well, I’m glad to bring people together. And if I can, in some way honor Fred’s tradition, that’s great. I don’t think I approach a fraction of what Fred did and continues to do even posthumously. But I think I learned a lot from Fred and if some of that comes out, that’s wonderful.

AD: I hear what you’re saying. You’re very humble. I think you’re destined to be talked about in the same way and placed amongst musicians like Fred Anderson, Ari Brown and other Chicago musicians.

Joshua Abrams: There are so many legendary musicians from here who have and continue to make their mark. Look at Nicole Mitchell, look at Matana Roberts; Chad Taylor, David Boykin, Jeff Parker, Jim Baker, who I played with for years at The Velvet Lounge. All these musicians have serious legacies that are still ongoing. And it’s beautiful to witness that grow over many years. To see the immensity of what people came before you have achieved. And it’s wonderful to get to understand that through lived experience. To get to continue to work with someone like Hamid Drake, and play in his bands now. And have him play in Natural Information Society. The way the music continues is really complicated to explain. It’s not a simple thing, it’s all very interwoven. But if you’re honest with yourself, I think it makes you humble.

AD: To bring us to a close – the new album. Can you talk about Since Time Is Gravity, and also, if you could talk about the new video?

Joshua Abrams: I think with the new record I wanted to expand on writing for a larger group. One of the concepts in mind was murmuration, which is a particular pattern of movements of large groups of birds. Murmuration was a visual metaphor for how the writing could deal with denser structures and dissonance and still maintain the music’s hypnotic qualities. So that’s what I was trying to explore. And then fortunately having the chance to work with people like Ben Lamar Gay, Mai Sugimoto, Josh Berman and Nick Mazzarella. Expanding the palette, expanding the number of horns. And how could there be more momentum? “Mandatory Reality” was consistently slow, for the most part. And this album is much more a record about momentum and density. So that’s where I was aiming.The video was created for the album’s second piece “Is” and was choreographed & directed by Mikel Patrick Avery. Not only is Mikel an amazing & singular drummer but he also is an accomplished photographer and has been delving into the filmmaking waters of late. I had wanted to work with him on a video over the past years and now seemed like the right moment. We got together to kick over ideas; I was mentioning murmuration and some of the thoughts that inspired the record. He had images in mind of about different folk dances, circular folk dances. Originally, we imagined we would get other dancers. Then we realized, no, let’s see if we can get the members of the group to participate. And we brought in a few other friends to fill out the group. And then we recorded it at a great venue here in Chicago, called Constellation that’s kind of our home base. We were able to meet there and shoot it all in a few hours. Mikel came up with the choreography & we gave it a go. Even though the movements are pedestrian, working with them over & over was intense. It felt wonderful to have the whole ensemble participating. Mikel had an idea about mirroring and choreographed/filmed it in such a way as to try to get the most out of that possibility. And I think it fits the spirit of the music very well.

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