Artist: Joshua Abrams & Natural Information Society
Genre: Avant-garde Jazz, Free Improvisation
Quality: mp3, 320 kbps
Maroon Dune (09:07)
St. Cloud (04:25)
Sideways Fall (12:11)
If Joshua Abrams’s Natural Information Society is in the business of creating “sonic environments,” then 2015’s Magnetoception was a place for wandering. Gently paced, its considerable variety distributed deliberately across four LP sides, the music guided with a light hand. This meant that before exploring every corner, there was a chance you might get lost—in thought, perhaps, or in the task of getting up again to flip the record over. NIS’s latest, by contrast, is a tighter, denser space. Lasting only 42 minutes, Simultonality has an energy that would be hard to sustain for much longer and a momentum that ushers the listener along with no chance for straying.
Given the niche that Abrams has dug out for NIS in the avant-jazz scene, it’s not surprising that at the root of Simultonality’s propulsive character lies rhythm, in particular the hypnotizing ostinati that ground Abrams’s simple, sturdy compositions. Though these looping patterns tend to be anchored by Abrams himself—mostly on guimbri, but also on harp and acoustic bass—it doesn’t hurt that pretty much everyone in the band plays some kind of rhythm instrument—some of them doubled: Emmett Kelly on electric guitar, Lisa Alvarado and Ben Boye on a variety of keyboards (plus Boye’s autoharp), and Michael Avery and Frank Rosaly on drums and percussion.
As the album’s title suggests, it’s the band’s collective focus that accounts for the full unstoppable force of the music. Opener “Maroon Dune” sets off on a bounding 5/4 two-step. Over Abrams’s punchy guimbri line, the rest of the band weave variations on the ostinato—all except Alvarado and Boye, whose broad chordal overlays sigh like exhalations in strange but compelling contrast to the perpetually unresolved odd meter. In other places all voices align, as in the Reich-like pulsating introduction of follow-up “Ophiuchus,” which eventually opens out into an affectingly wistful 6/8 groove. At the center of the album sits—or rather, dances—“Sideways Fall,” an epic twelve-minute jam whose quarter note percussive backbone has already earned numerous comparisons to Can’s “Vitamin C.” Here the band’s voices double and echo each other—not only Avery and Rosaly, but also Kelly, Boye, and Alvarado, who pass around complementary phrases with the circularity of a snake eating its own tail.
Whereas the first three tracks are all about groove, the final two move into new territory. With its web-like harp ostinato and dewdrop embellishments, “St. Cloud” lets in a bit of fresh air, welcome after the close, sweaty dance marathon that precedes it. But the real departure is “2128 ½,” named after the address (on Chicago’s South Indiana Avenue) that once hosted Fred Anderson’s beloved Velvet Lounge. Being a tribute, the tune is weighted with smoky, forlorn nostalgia, from the classic (and uncharacteristic, for NIS) free jazz introduction to the walking bass line (equally uncharacteristic) Abrams descends into at about the three-minute mark. Though the band works with what feels like a single consciousness throughout the album, the closer guest-stars veteran Chicago saxophonist Ari Brown. His playing is exactly what’s needed—broad and musical, dynamic and yet somehow static at the same time, evoking a lost past. It’s an unexpected but brilliant ending to one of NIS’s best albums yet.
By Eric McDowell