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Natural Information Society celebrates its idiosyncrasies, warts and all

While rooted in Chicago's jazz community, the past few years have found Natural Information Society opening for indie stalwarts like Yo La Tengo, Kurt Vile and Big Thief.
Chris Strong
Courtesy of the artist
While rooted in Chicago's jazz community, the past few years have found Natural Information Society opening for indie stalwarts like Yo La Tengo, Kurt Vile and Big Thief.

In an alternate universe, Joshua Abrams is a beloved icon of late night television. Abrams has been a driving force in Chicago's vibrant jazz, post-rock, indie and creative music scene for 30 years, but what if Abrams had remained with his first band in Philadelphia in the early '90s? What if he was still playing upright bass alongside Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson in The Roots every night on The Tonight Show? Abrams laughs at the thought: "I knew back then that both Ahmir and Tariq are truly both geniuses at what they do and I had no doubt they would do whatever they wanted to do," he says on a video call from his home in Chicago. Behind him, you can make out the best video call backdrop imaginable: a vivid, hypnotic painting by his wife and bandmate, Whitney Biennial visual artist Lisa Alvarado.

Abrams bumped into Questlove and Black Thought backstage at Pitchfork Music Fest last year where his long-running band, Natural Information Society, was also performing. Abrams was a linchpin on The Roots' first album, Organix, and you can make out his lanky frame hunched over his bass in the video for "Pass the Popcorn." He left the band before its major label debut, but the lessons gleaned from The Roots remain close at hand. "My experience with them was what calcified me into being a musician," Abrams says. "Playing with them on the streets of Philly really showed me what music could do, where you get beyond your mind, beyond language and get to that space. I went from loving music and being into it to the realization: 'I have to play music.' " It led Abrams on a musical journey that's included stints with Tortoise, Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Bonnie "Prince" Billy as well as jazz composers Nicole Mitchell, Makaya McCraven and Roscoe Mitchell.

Such lifeforce-level urgency propels Natural Information Society. While rooted in jazz composition, world music and indie-rock eclecticism, NIS also favors the kind of churning, ever-evolving rhythmic minimalism of composers like Steve Reich and Terry Riley. The group's latest, Since Time is Gravity, finds the group now 11 members strong, with the likes of veteran tenor saxophonist Ari Brown, relative newcomer saxophonist Mai Sugimoto, percussionist Hamid Drake and cornetist Ben LaMar Gay in its ranks.

No matter the size though, Abrams' giumbri remains a focal point. A bass lute native to sub-Saharan Africa, the three-stringed giumbri is an instrument that dates back to the 16th century and is fundamental to Moroccan Gnawa music — its low-end growl akin to the bass, while the animal skin stretched across the soundbox helps it resonate like a banjo. Abrams elicits buzzes, growls, drones and thumps from the instrument and there's little like it in most modern music.

"There's a great tradition in Chicago through the AACM [Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians], having an expanded conception of what instrumentation can be," Abrams says, wherein jazz players can draw on other musical traditions and fuse it to their own practice and compositions, "drawing from instruments throughout the world, respecting them but making it their own." Hamid Drake knew Abrams had gotten one when he was in Morocco "and he kept encouraging me to get beyond a place of doubt," Abrams says. His giumbri first appeared on revered Chicago tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson's 2007 album with Drake, From the River to the Ocean, slowly becoming a primary compositional tool for Abrams.

Drake, one of Abrams' closest collaborators in Chicago, actually sees Lisa Alvarado, Abrams' musical and life partner since the late '90s, as the flip side of Abrams' musical coin. They each explore their various disciplines and those sensibilities converge in the band, where Alvarado plays harmonium and her paintings and tapestries hang onstage during performances: "I think there's something about the primordial nature of her work that intuited something in him to move toward the guimbri for these works with NIS," Drake says. "It's more like a visual display of what's happening sonically with the music."

One of Alvarado's paintings — featured in last year's Whitney Biennial — graces the cover of Since Time is Gravity. "My painting gets to pierce reality, into this other world that maybe it normally wouldn't be engaged with," Alvarado says of having her large-scale patterned tapestries appear outside of galleries and museums, both as album cover and as backdrop for the band's performances on tour. "I feel like I'm always breaking through a forcefield of normalcy that happens in a performance or venue." For Abrams, having his wife's visual art onstage with them on tour provides a little sanctum no matter the size of the club: "We can set up our own space within whatever venue and it's a subliminal cue; it frames the band, shifts the context."

Playing with [The Roots] on the streets of Philly really showed me what music could do, where you get beyond your mind, beyond language and get to that space. I went from loving music and being into it to the realization: 'I have to play music.'

While rooted in Chicago's jazz community, the past few years have found the band opening for indie stalwarts like Yo La Tengo, Kurt Vile and Big Thief, performing for bigger audiences beyond Chicago. "We were about to go on the road again, the first post-COVID tour and we thought we should get someone really special to open," Big Thief's James Krivchenia says of tapping Natural Information Society (and Mind Maintenance, Abrams' duo with drummer Chad Taylor) to play a few shows. "It's so emotionally open and malleable that it takes a lot of what you bring to it," Krivchenia says of NIS. "If you're looking for ecstatic energy, it has that in there. But if you're going inward, more 'shadow,' it also has that. It has this ambiguous enough tonality and feeling, it's asking you to put something into it. It can give you as much as you give it."

It can also feel celebratory and joyous. The group's previous album, descension (Out of Our Constrictions), featured U.K. free-improv legend Evan Parker's soprano saxophone snaking atop a 140 BPM beat for close to 90 minutes and it felt like it might go on forever. It's a piece that the band played in concert for a good four years, each time finding new folds and nuances to explore. Imagine if the Grateful Dead only played "Dark Star'' for a long stretch and you get a hint of "descension" and its sprawling scope. "It's so wonderful and trancey," says Krivchenia. "It turns into a party in a cool way." Even reluctant indie audiences not quite sure what to make of an opening band playing a single song the length of their set found themselves cheering by set's end. "We knew it could get over in a rock and roll situation," Abrams says. "You can take it in a listening direction, but we had people just fully dance to it, too."

Gravity both deepens NIS' sound and ranges into new terrain, focusing on what Abrams' calls the band's primary concerns: "patience, continuance, gradual change, focus on rhythm, rhythmic-centric, building from the rhythm, where lead instruments are woven in, making a fabric." Opener "Moontide Chorus" transforms from a meditation to a maze, the solo giumbri giving way to a full ensemble with multiple percussionists and horns, and Ari Brown's arcing tenor taking center stage. He nimbly follows the piece's many contours before suddenly soaring above it like a solar flare. Listen closely to other sprawling numbers like "Murmuration" and "Stigmergy" and the horns echo the celebratory street parade feel of early New Orleans jazz, full of roars, shouts and shrieks.

A member of AACM since 1971, Brown worked as a session player for arranger Charles Stepney and was a key figure in Chicago jazz ensembles like The Awakening. Brown embodies what Abrams calls "Chicago's tenor saxophone history as this 'advanced healing technology': Gene Ammons, Johnny Griffin, Von Freeman, Fred Anderson... there's this lineage and Ari represents that now and fulfills that in a way."

Having an elder statesman like Brown and new voice like Sugimoto be part of this ensemble is especially gratifying for Abrams, pointing to a larger theme of the band and this moment. The album cover states it plainly, crediting the group as "Natural Information Society Community Ensemble," with emphasis on the penultimate word. The music is through-composed and not a free-for-all as in some jazz improv, but he still wants each player's unique abilities to shine through. "There's a wealth of community we have in Chicago and throughout the world. There's room for everyone's personality and I want them to bring their sound to it," Abrams says. On the droning "Immemorial," you can still make out all the different instrumentation arising in the mix.

That urge, first found on the streets of Philly with The Roots, still drives Abrams in the present. In the wake of the pandemic and political rhetoric suggestive of increased isolation and social splintering, Abrams is looking to bring everyone together with this music. "It's not like a classical aesthetic to make everyone anonymous to be unified," he says. "No, we unify with all our idiosyncrasies, warts and all."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Andy Beta