Bassist, guembri player, and bandleader Joshua Abrams‘ music relies on pulse. As such, it finds organic connections to anything from some of Sun Ra‘s more riff-based 1970s-era compositions to Moroccan Gnawa music, a tradition from which Abrams snagged the guembri in the first place. There is a natural overlap with Pharoah Sanders‘ modal spirituality and perhaps at least a distant kinship with instrumental hip hop by the likes of Spliff Jacksun or Ghost McGrady.
The music Abrams makes with his Natural Information Society is at once inviting, spell-inducing, and consciousness provoking. It’s a kind of legitimate “world” music with connections to Don Cherry’s sonic globetrotting, Khahil El’Zabar’s Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, and other musicians who might have jazz impulses but ultimately pull listeners towards a 21st-century throb as much indebted to funk, trance, or the Black church as it is swing. Think Makaya McCraven or Jeff Parker’s Mondays at the Enfield Tennis Academy.
Since Time Is Gravity, Natural Information Society’s latest, splits the ground between 2019’s Mandatory Reality, easily the ensemble’s most meditative release, and 2021’s Descension (Out of Our Constrictions), perhaps their most chaotic record, thanks in no small part to the snake-charmer-on-meth soprano sax playing of guest Evan Parker. But like every album they drop, there’s the kind of growth that creates subtle changes in the music without anything remotely jarring.
Here, the elusive shifts in sound come in part from the band’s core players being augmented by the expanded horn and percussion players such as Hamid Drake and Ben Lamar Gay, but more crucially by Ari Brown, the 79-year-old Chicago tenor sax legend who’s played with everyone from Henry Threadgill, members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and El’Zabar’s Ethnic Heritage Ensemble. The three tracks that feature him find him somewhere between improvisation and adherence to a certain unspoken code.
“Gravity” adds layers of woodwinds and horns; first flute, then cornets, and finally a bass clarinet- hocketed, languorous, sensual, and processional, before Brown enters. He weaves and darts in and out of the groove, sometimes barking, other times whispering, delivering stacks of short phrases as the music billows around him. “Is”, which also features Brown, starts with a brief, choppy guembri line from Abrams before both Brown and the rest of the horns come in, nearly in unison, Brown’s tenor skating effortlessly atop a swelling horn section. For a moment, there’s an unconscious connection to Charles Mingus’ masterpiece for the big band The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady.
What these two tunes have in common, not only with each other but with Natural Information Society’s music in general, is the attention to sustain. This is not music based on chord changes. Instead, it derives its energy from an all-enveloping communion bordering on hypnosis. “Immemorial” is perhaps the album’s most overt example of this. Drake’s table and Lisa Alvarado’s harmonium are front and center; meanwhile, the horns play in such a quiet covenant as to go almost unnoticed. Abrams bows a double bass, and his occasional treble-pitched whines are the only thing that ever rises from the song’s otherwise unbroken, droning rumble.
Under Abrams’ stewardship, Natural Information Society releases have allowed featured players to alter the music sonically without compromising the pulse at the root of their output. Since Time Is Gravity may be a slightly more orchestrated version of that allegiance to a loosely controlled creative state. Still, the results are every bit as sublime as anything he and his partners in collective aural immersion have ever released.