Photo: Charlie Gross

Joshua Abrams and Natural Information Society Produce a Minimalist Opus

Joshua Abrams and Natural Information Society return with their new full-length, Mandatory Reality, aptly navigating the space between jazz and experimental music.

Mandatory Reality
Joshua Abrams and Natural Information Society
12 April 2019

Joshua Abrams had an eclectic approach to composition and performance since he set out in the early 1980s. Back then Abrams was a member of a relatively unknown street band called Square Roots, which would eventually become the Roots. But, somewhere along this journey, Abrams decided to take a different route, moving to Chicago and getting involved in the experimental jazz scene. During that time, Abrams collaborated with an impressive array of musicians, ranging from experimental rockers Tortoise, post-rock masters Godspeed You! Black Emperor, iconoclastic saxophonist Matana Roberts, and freak folk phenom Bonnie “Prince” Billy.

This series of collaborations has created the illusion that Abrams is primarily a session musician, but through the years he has also led a number of acts, namely the Joshua Abrams Quartet and Reminder. But his most potent ensemble was established in 2010, in the Natural Information Society, which explores the area of minimalist jazz in an ecstatic fashion. Having already released two fantastic records in Simultonality and Magnetoception, as well as the collaborative Automaginery with Bitchin Bajas, the ensemble now returns with Mandatory Reality.

With Mandatory Reality Abrams and company walk down a strange and ambitious path. The long-form compositions might have their foundation in the jazz scene, but much of the record’s progression and its aesthetics owe to prominent experimental figures like Philip Glass. “In Memory’s Prism” unfolds this narrative spectacularly as a dark, harrowing tonality sets in, with the glacial percussive backbone and the grand horn section producing a hypnotic effect. The ensemble swiftly navigates through this mesmerizing soundscape with their impeccable take on dynamics. The crescendos of the opening track are an example of this approach, providing a drop from the smooth, minimal narrative and allowing the music to reach some devastating peaks.

As the record unfolds, the depth of Abrams’ concept is further exposed, with “Finite” first revealing a more playful rendition from the ensemble. The free-jazz essence rises to the surface, tilting the vision away from the overly smooth notions of the opening track. There is still a soothing quality as “Finite” progresses, but here the piano, reeds, and percussion all masterfully intertwine to break the mold of the earlier approach. It is this pivotal moment of Mandatory Reality that offers a glimpse of what will follow, with the ensemble finding a fine balance between their core jazz aesthetics and their experimental leanings. It is a moment that on the one hand does not break the hypnotic spell of the music, but it also allows the improv notions to come forward.

“Shadow Conductor” is the moment when this calm narrative comes to an end, with the ensemble moving further away from their characteristic dreamscapes. There is a more pronounced sense of urgency as the ensemble applies more pressure, moving through dissonant and obscure pathways. It is this motif that is exalted with closing track “Agree”, as the ensemble returns to a bitter sense of minimalism, with the reeds creating an absolute haze of sounds and colors in a sublimely cacophonous rendition. It is this constant process of transformation that has built such an impressive narrative for Mandatory Reality. As the ensemble moves from one track to the next, it feels like they are discovering something new about their compositions and ideas each time. It is this simple fact that makes Mandatory Reality such an enticing listen.

RATING 7 / 10