In early October, the Chicago-based multi-genre instrumental group Joshua Abrams & Natural Information Society appeared on back-to-back nights at Union Pool in Williamsburg. Formed in 2010 and led by bassist and composer Abrams, a longtime veteran of Chicago’s creative and experimental scene, the group is continually shapeshifting, with ever changing lineups. The second night of the two, the group took the form of a quartet that included Abrams on guimbri (a Moroccan bass lute), Lisa Alvarado on processed harmonium, Jason Stein on bass clarinet, and Jim White of the Australian instrumental band Dirty Three on drums.
Following a freeform post-rock set by Steve Gunn (guitar) & John Truscinski (drums), JA&NIS, Gunn-Truscinski Duo as it’s often abbreviated, took the stage, and, all seated, quickly and confidently launched into a rich hypnotic, polyrhythmic instrumental tapestry. Built upon a modal foundation and led by the driving rhythms of Abrams’s guimbri lines, each member of the quartet stayed locked in their own distinct groove throughout, repeating short to medium-length ostinatos just slightly out of rhythmic phase with each other. The cumulative effect was somewhere between heterophony—the simultaneous variation of a single melodic line,—and counterpoint—lines that are independent in rhythm and contour—as they moved through various subtle variations and dynamic changes within what was an otherwise continuous, static texture. Though it would be difficult to remember any particular tune from the performance, the piece had a distinct melodic quality, which, as with the other elements, underwent continual permutations and variations. At times one of the musicians would appear to be launching a solo of sorts, only to be subsumed by the ensemble texture which maintained a strong energy level from start to finish. Uninterrupted, this thoroughly engaging performance lasted upwards of one hour.
This music is informed in more-or-less equal parts by jazz, minimalism, and one or more unspecified non-western traditions, presumably of African origins, and the piece had a transcendental, ritualistic quality, enhanced by Alvarado’s pattern-based abstract paintings that hung on the wall behind the group. Though they have been described as, among other things, psychedelic, I found this performance to be more of a visceral experience, more in the body than the mind. Perhaps it was the amplification, and the club setting, or the drumming by White—which tended towards the heavy-handed rock end of the spectrum—that brought out a more assertive, punk quality. By contrast, in a performance last July at Roulette, a slightly different version of the quartet sounded more restrained and contemplative while also playing a similar extended polyrhythmic work. On their most recent recording, Mandatory Reality (Eremite), an expanded ensemble brings out a more dreamy, jazzy, big band quality. In all these different iterations, the common thread is modality and polyrhythmic repetition across long durations.
However one describes it, JA&NIS appears to be a genuinely original concept, and one well worth hearing live. Though I have been reading about the group for a number of years, there have been few opportunities to actually see them before these recent events, and very little of their music is easily accessible online. Overall, they don’t seem very well known here, even though they did draw a decent audience. It was, however, a Friday night at Union Pool, a longtime hub for up-and-coming bands and a notorious hookup joint. But in point-of-fact, the aforementioned opening act seemed to be the bigger draw. All of which makes sense given the nature of the music, which is decidedly between genres and categories, and largely non-commercial. Beyond that, Abrams doesn’t appear to be a particularly fame-seeking artist, and the group is clearly focussed on the music, if not entirely indifferent to the audience. It’s more of a cult project, or secret society, with a certain mystique that’s difficult to pin down, something along the lines of La Monte Young meets Art Ensemble of Chicago.
Though minimalism has roots in both jazz and various non-western traditions, it is rare for these different idioms to be combined in a single work. And this is perhaps the most significant innovation of JA&NIS, and it’s surprising that there hasn’t been more of this particular type of genre mixing. Though I have spent embarrassingly little time in Chicago, the reverberations of that city’s rich musical history continue to be felt on this side of the country, and this group is an excellent example of what the city has to offer. It’s not everyday that you hear a long-form minimalist, North African-infused jazz quartet in a hip, Brooklyn rock club, but thank goodness you can! And I am heartened by the fact that forward thinking groups such as this can continue to record and tour in these economically and culturally challenging times. Keep an eye out for their next New York appearance, because you’re not likely to hear about it without paying some attention.