Graded on a Curve: Joshua Abrams, Excavations 1

Bassist Joshua Abrams’ discography is loaded, and with accumulated credits considerably more diverse than the norm. As a young Philadelphian, he was a member of The Roots, and after relocating to Chicago, he’s played with, amongst others, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Tortoise, and Jandek. As a jazz explorer, his connections include Roscoe Mitchell, Fred Anderson, Peter Brötzmann, Hamid Drake, Kidd Jordan, and Nicole Mitchell, but he’s probably most noted for forming the beyond category Natural Information Society. Abrams’ latest release presents him solo, and for lovers of advanced abstraction, it’s a killer; Excavations 1 is out June 15 on vinyl through Feeding Tube.

While not a native of Chicago, Joshua Abrams carries forward the city’s jazz tradition exceptionally well. Although he’s released one CD as leader of the Joshua Abrams Quartet (2013’s Unknown Known on Rouge Art), his name has been established through steadfast collaboration and the sturdy output of groups. First there was Town and Country (five albums, all but the first for Thrill Jockey, between ’98 and ’06), and beginning in 2010 (with four releases and a joint disc with Bitchin Bajas) there is now the Natural Information Society.

This is not to suggest that Abrams is a diligent adherent to the precedent set forth by the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Air. To the contrary, he’s clearly the leader of NIS (in fact, many of the records are credited to Abrams, though, interestingly, all except the debut Natural Information and the Bajas collab feature textless front covers), and of the comparisons I’ve run across, the one to Don Cherry feels quite right, in large part through a persistent disinclination to adhere to a single stylistic path.

As anyone familiar with NIS knows, they utilize instrumentation both trad (frame drum, tabla, gongs, bells, harmonium, dulcimer, and Abrams’ guembri) and electric in a blend of psychedelia, minimalism, drone, Krautrock, and yes indeed, jazz. All with a refreshing eschewal of hierarchy, with Abrams less a leader than a shaping coordinator, which brings me back to thoughts of the Windy City.

If Chicago improvisors are noted for ensemble play and a desire to cross stylistic lines, there’s also a healthy tendency to go it alone. Along with Afrisong and Spiral: Live at Montreux 1978 by pianist and AACM co-founder Muhal Richard Abrams, and For Alto by creative force of nature Anthony Braxton, there’s a bunch from members of the Art Ensemble; Roscoe Mitchell’s Solo Saxophone Concerts, Joseph Jarman’s Sunbound Volume One, Famoudou Don Moye’s Sun Percussion Volume One, and most pertinent to this review, the bass of Brother Malachi Favors Magoustous’ Natural and the Spiritual.

With Excavations 1, Abrams joins both the ranks of those Chicago players with truly solo albums and the list of bassists who’ve recorded unaccompanied, a tradition that began with the release of Barre Phillips’ Journal Violone in 1968. It’s a line of exploration that’s a lot wider than one might expect. Indeed, Abrams’ improvisations here are markedly different from Journal Violone, in part through recognizability. This is to say, if you know what a double bass sounds like, then you will know pretty quickly that it’s the instrument Phillips is playing on his record.

It’s maybe not so apparent with Excavations 1, which to borrow an observation made by Byron Coley in the promo text’s notes, is nearer to the thrust of avant-garde sound-making. This is manifest right away in “Unexplain,” the opener flush with bowing and scraping rather than trad plucking, a method that really only gets offered here through the short selection “Branches.” This means folks who only know Abrams through Town and Country and NIS might not find this LP to their liking.

Than again, who knows what you like? I dig both NIS and this album, and you might too. I’d say it really comes down to an appreciation for aural abstraction, and Abrams really dives into that zone here. For example, a passage in the midsection of “Buzzards” sounds like he’s attempting to airlift an aged but durable wooden trunk with an antiquated but reliable system of ropes and pulleys.

By extension, the opening portion of the following “Lingo” sounds like Abrams has gotten that trunk through the second-floor window and is now trying to maneuver it into a corner, but with you, the heavy-assed listener, inside it. What a sound! And yeah, sound is really what Excavations 1 is about. There are a few brief moments that do connect like the expert attacking of a bull fiddle, but most of it is concerned with new possibilities, and it’s an altogether splendid thing to hear.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
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