A mainstay of the Chicago music scene for more than a decade with recorded appearances alongside such figures as Nicole Mitchell, Jason Stein, Rob Mazurek, and the minimal chamber group Town & Country, it remained to be seen what bassist/string multi-instrumentalist Joshua Abrams would do when presented with the opportunity to direct an album. The result in 2010 was Natural Information, a unique record that explored ethnographically inspired improvisation with a psychedelic undertow, shot through with a degree of minimalism not often heard in modern jazz. While Natural Information — which also featured such luminaries as drummers Nori Tanaka and Frank Rosaly; vibraphonist Jason Adasciewicz; and guitarist Emmett Kelley — was a bit toothy, Represencing smooths the concept over into a whole that is both atmospheric and arresting. In addition to occasional organ, loops, and percussion, Abrams mostly sticks to the guimbri, a Gnawan bass lute. The ensemble is fleshed out by luminaries of Chicago creative music, including Kelly, Mitchell, Stein, tenorman David Boykin, guitarist Jeff Parker, cellist Tomeka Reid, and percussionists Chad Taylor (now in NYC), Michael Zerang, and Mikel Avery. The eight pieces are all from Abrams’ pen and feature small-group combinations from the above orchestra.
Drawing from folk and classical music from West and North Africa and Southeast/South Asia, as well as modern jazz, psych-rock, and contemporary chamber music, Abrams aligns himself with musician-collagists like Don Cherry, Bengt Berger, William Parker, Sun Ra, and Ahmed Abdul-Malik. Represencing is not about specific representation or reference, instead conjuring vibrations of personalized otherness. It is music built through traveling, listening, and collaborating, which isn’t to say that Abrams and company are necessarily taking music from a certain locale and grafting it onto another. Rather, it is work of open minds and open hearts, drawing from collective experience.
For example, the quartet piece “San Anto” opens the first side, arranged for guimbri (plucked and deeply resonant), organ, gong, and tenor saxophone. Invocational and trance-like, Abrams and Taylor present a minimalist framework of drone and shifting vamps over which Boykin’s flinty tenor flourishes expound neither free jazz nor art-raga. Sans percussion, the closing spectral plateau of “Moon Hunger” (a duet for Boykin and Abrams) is reminiscent of Terje Rypdal and Jan Garbarek’s bowed guitar, reed, and reverb work. The title tune is a lengthy duet for guimbri and drum set, Chad Taylor recalling Billy Higgins in his light, effervescent, and swinging cymbal and snare attack, as Abrams bounces and wiggles with funky depth. Where Sandy Bull trod with country ragas, Abrams has a particulate earthiness that, while clearly oriented toward bass frequencies, is incredibly jovial and subtly complex.
“Sound Talisman” is a crisper variant on the psychedelic rock elements of Natural Information, though recast into a holding pattern with inconspicuous tonal flourishes. Emmett Kelly’s electric guitar provides a gritty drone against a pliant guimbri vamp and the steady, bent metronome clatter of gong and cymbals. With hand-heel taps on the bass lute’s body serving as auxiliary percussion, cellist Tomeka Reid is a keening link between classicism and the blues on “Sungazer,” one of Represencing’s more self-contained pieces, evoking the clean lines of altoist Gary Bartz with powerful and breathy saxophone-like phrases. “Cloud Walking” combines Jeff Parker’s subdued blues-rock shuffle with a palette of guimbri, harmonium (courtesy Lisa Alvarado, also the LP cover artist), and tambourine, and at times it is difficult to discern whether the ensemble will turn down an alley in North Africa or in San Francisco.
Curiously, there is a seeming division between linking atmospheric sketches and tune-like fragments, with the second side’s shorter compositions nodding in the direction of snapshots that could be extended ad infinitum if only the tapes were kept rolling. In a sense, I wish that some of these pieces were a bit longer, but the fact that “Sound Talisman” and “Enter Mountain Amulet” seem to appear and disappear in medias res lends them a bit of extra mystery. While the music itself is often face-forward and direct (even as it might be colored in a sort of aural wash), the way the LP is programmed in a Saturn-like cut-and-paste fashion allows Represencing to retain a fair amount of quirkiness. It’s somewhat rare in an age of overstuffed albums to actually wish for more, but I’m convinced that Abrams has a double-album in him. Nevertheless, what we’re presented with is a fascinating and evocative set of transient contemporary improvisation that renders boundaries of time, place, and subculture only obliquely relevant.