I hadn’t experienced Natural Information Society before this release, but Since Time Is Gravity is something like the seventh release by this ensemble that has been the project of composer and multi-instrumentalist Joshua Abrams for 15 years. It shares some DNA with Club d’Elf’s 2022 album You Never Know, which I reviewed here about a year ago. The connection is mostly in the central role played by the guimbri or sintir, a Moroccan bass lute that’s commonly used in this sort of trance music.
The core of Natural Information Society is Abrams, playing guimbri as well as double bass, Lisa Alvarado (harmonium) Mikel Patrick Avery (percussion) and Jason Stein (bass clarinet). This release, however, is credited to Natural Information Society Community Ensemble with Ari Brown, an expanded ensemble that can employ up to 10 musicians including Josh Berman and Ben Lamar Gay (cornets), Nick Mazzarella & Mai Sugimoto (alto saxophones & flute), Kara Bershad (harp), Hamid Drake (drums), and legendary tenor saxophonist Ari Brown, a longtime member of Chicago’s groundbreaking Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians.
The album’s eight tracks come in three sorts. There are two relatively short solo guimbri works by Abrams, “Wane” and “Wax.” Three extended works include the monumental work of Ari Brown with the larger ensemble, and the remaining three feature various permutations of the ensemble. The solo guimbri pieces are good introductions to the instrument and its range of sounds, which range from plucked strings like a lute, droning bass strings, and percussive taps and raps – as well as the kind of circular trance-inducing patterns that lie at the heart of this music. Elsewhere, as they say, the plot thickens.
The three pieces by the expanded group featuring Brown bookend the album but also form its core in a way. Taken together they pack quite a punch. The opening track “Moontide Chorus” begins with a brief introduction by Abrams on guimbri, plucking it in a stuttering, circular pattern. I immediately thought of Širom’s The Liquified Throne of Simplicity from 2022. Instruments are added in ones and twos and threes, building to a horn chorus of brass and wind, before Brown lands with a portentous tenor line, punctuated by chordal turns form the cornets. Constantly I’m aware of the deep droning of Jason Stein’s bass clarinet. All in all, it’s an intriguing blend of ambient, free jazz and World music with suggestions of polyrhythmicality.
There’s a much more “free jazz” feel to the followup track, “Is,” although it’s deeply intertwined with Moroccan style trance, the guimbri’s sinuously chunking bass line interacting in wonderous ways with Stein’s bass clarinet. It’s a fully developed piece that explores many different textures in its nearly 12 minutes. The closer “Gravity” is shorter at eight minutes but packs a lot into that span. As it’s being set up, the tenor, flute, and cornets play interlocking lines like a 12-tone composition over a dense layer of percussion, with the bass clarinet joining the guimbri, drums and other percussion devices as a rhythm section. Brown’s lengthy tenor solo starts melodically with a bit of a lounge jazz feel, then morphs into expressive wails and skronks, all of which give the piece an aura of ’50s exotica gone off the rails.
The remaining three pieces feature the ensemble without Brown. “Immemorial” is a wall of dissonant droning, complete with harmonium and a bowed guimbri or double bass, kept moving forward by a tabla beat. “Stigmergy” superimposes a hard bop jazz structure with alternating solos from cornets, alto sax and bass clarinet, over dense polyrhythms.
Finally, “Murmuration” is my favorite. This one leapt out of the speakers at me as an absolutely mesmerizing 18 minutes of ambient jazz. The title, which refers to the way some birds, especially starlings, move in huge synchronized flocks, is reflected in the music’s sighing, breathing ambient haze of sound. Over a subtle but insistent 6/8 rhythm on drums and percussion, and the guimbri and harp plucking out a repetitive pattern matched by Lisa Alvarado’s harmonium, the ensemble flows and swoops in a majestic, slo-mo aural miasma.
Since Time Is Gravity is one of the more complex and nuanced albums I’ve reviewed in recent years. I’d rank it up there with the Brooklyn Raga Massive’s In D. All fans of modern and ambient jazz, trance, and modal world music should definitely lean into this one.
(Eremite Records, 2023)