The masterful Chicago musician Joshua Abrams played five concerts at the Hideout in November, playing with different collaborators on each Tuesday night. The one constant was the group he calls Natural Information Society Residency — but even that ensemble has a shifting lineup. It’s essentially a setting for Abrams to play an African instrument called the gimbri (a three-stringed skin-covered bass plucked lute used by the Gnawa people of West Africa) as part of a large group of musicians improvising meditative minimalism and drones — part jazz, part rock, part world music, part experiment. Natural Information Society is one of Chicago’s best groups today, and the two shows I saw during November’s residency only confirmed how innovative and transcendent this band is.
I was there on Nov. 15, when the evening started with a set by Emmett Kelly, the multitalented musician who leads the Cairo Gang (or performs under that moniker) as well as playing guitar with numerous other bands. On this evening, however, Kelly sang cool jazz music in a style reminiscent of Chet Baker, with moody and atmospheric arrangements by the Joshua Abrams Quintet.
Then the main set featured Natural Information Society joining forces with Bitchin Bajas. Kelly joined in on guitar.
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The second show I saw was on Nov. 22, when the fabulous drummer Hamid Drake performed during both sets. During the jazzy opening set, Abrams and Drake played with Edward Wilkerson on reeds and oud and Josh Berman on cornet. Then came another mesmerizing performance by Natural Information Society.
Millennium Park’s series of free summer concerts at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, always one of the highlights of the year in Chicago, is in full swing now. Monday’s headliner was Omar Souleyman (click here to see my photos of Souleyman), but the show also featured a top-notch opening act, Chicago bassist Joshua Abrams and the talented ensemble of players he calls the Natural Information Society. Abrams’ second record with a version of this group, Represencing, was one of my top 10 albums for 2012 — and the current lineup sounded fabulous in the Pritzker stage on Monday, jamming to hypnotic grooves with psychedelic and exotic flair.
Abrams played the guimbri, a North African instrument, throughout the show, accompanied by the versatile guitarist Emmett Kelly (leader of the great Cairo Gang); drummers Frank Rosaly and Mikel Avery; Lisa Alvarado on harmonium and gong; and Ben Boye on autoharp and keyboards. It was glorious.
Elastic Arts is one of those odd little Chicago venues where you walk up a flight of stairs and find yourself in an unassuming room, surrounded by people who have gathered for what seems more like a casual party than a concert. But when it’s time for the music, everyone sits down and quietly listens. And the music itself is often experimental and exploratory. On Friday, Jan. 31, Elastic hosted the first night of what it calls the “Elastro Winter 2014 series of electro-acoustic collaborations.”
The headliners were two great Chicago musicians who dwell on the fringes of jazz, rock and experimentation: Jeff Parker and Joshua Abrams. Parker is best known as a guitarist, and Abrams is best known as a bassist, and they played those instruments during this set — but both also played keyboards or electronic devices, creating a droning hum that floated through their delicate improvisations.
The evening had begun with acoustic music by guitarist Ben Remsen (I walked in toward the end of his set), followed by a truly peculiar performance by Olivia Block and Peter J. Woods. As they began, pieces of lumber were leaning against the walls on either side of the stage. Their music — if that’s what it was — consisted of moving those pieces of wood to the middle of the stage and piling them up and then taking apart the pile and hauling the wood back to the edge of the stage. Block and Woods had contact microphones set up at various places on the stage, amplifying the creaky sounds of those boards being dragged and dropped. The whole thing felt more like a piece of performance art than music — or what most people think of as music, anyway. Whatever it was, it was strangely mesmerizing.
The Wire, a fine British magazine about experimental music, sponsors a truly diverse and frequently odd festival each year at the Empty Bottle in Chicago called Adventures in Modern Music. The festival ran five days; I caught one set on Wednesday, Oct. 3 (R. Stevie Moore) and most of the show on Thursday, Oct. 4.
R. Stevie Moore has reportedly recorded something like 400 homemade albums of lo-fi rock music, finally touring extensively for the first time last year at the age of 59. I can’t say I’m familiar with his oeuvre, if that’s the right word for it, but he put on an interesting enough performance that I’m curious to delve into his recordings … if I can figure out a starting point. His beard was blue. His stage banter included an odd chant about Neil Armstrong and Lance Armstrong.
Thursday’s show was a great example of the odd juxtapositions that are typical of the AIMM schedule. The evening started with an outstanding jazz set by Joshua Abrams and his band, Natural Information Society — well, jazz is about as close a genre label as seems appropriate, but it hardly seems adequate. Next up was the Manchester, England, techno artist Andy Stott, who generated some mesmerizing layered beats with his laptop.
Then came the New Hampshire black metal band Vattnet Viskar, which conjured up the natural fury of a thunderstorm with precise and powerful riffs. Finally, the English experimental duo Demdike Stare sounded downright sinister with pulsing drones.