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Natural Information Society and the coming week of sounds in Berlin
Brad Henkel, Mike Majkowski, Michael Winter, Xavier Lopez & Bryan Eubanks
Natural Information Society, now deeper than ever:
Last month while back in Chicago I caught a set by Joshua Abrams’ Natural Information Society at Constellation. I hadn’t seen the group since leaving Chicago nearly five years ago, but I have continued to follow its evolving aesthetic, refined interactions, compositional growth, and collaborative heart during that time, particularly on the brilliant 2021 recording with Evan Parker Descension (Out Of Our Constrictions) (Eremite). When it was released I was still writing the now canceled Complete Communion column for the Quietus, which refused to run any writing that discussed the British great due to his admittedly misguided postulations on Covid-19, and while I vehemently reject Parker’s thinking, his ongoing artistic genius shouldn’t be erased. I’m thrilled that I’ll get to witness that collaboration live this summer as part of Jazz em Agosto in Lisbon, Portugal.
Anyway, the gig I caught in Chicago—with the core quartet of Abrams on guimbri, Mikel Patrick Avery on drums, Lisa Alvarado on harmonium, and Jason Stein on bass clarinet—knocked me out. I always enjoyed NIS performances, but over the years I was away they’ve matured into an astonishing band with an imperturbable vision and elastic unity. That growth continues to shine on the band’s brilliant new album Since Time is Gravity, where the quartet is joined by a raft of Chicago talent that Abrams has called a “Community Ensemble.” That name rings true in multiple ways. The musicians are all crucial parts of Chicago’s tightly woven but disparate improvised music scene, yet there’s also a communal quality to the music, and the various horn players—to say nothing of long-time NIS adjunct Hamid Drake on percussion—serve an ensemble sound, often subsuming individual tones within a group aesthetic to provide a gorgeous, moving foundation for a given soloist, none more special than tenor saxophone veteran Ari Brown, the unofficial focus of the whole project. He unleashes stunning solos on the album’s opening and closing tracks, “Moontide Chorus” and “Gravity.”
Across four sides of music the grooves percolate coolly, Abrams’ twangy guimbri lines forging a pulsating alliance with the elegantly stripped down clomping of Avery, who has to rate as the preeminent minimalist in rhythmically-oriented improvised music. Abrams sketches out deceptively simple patterns, fleshed out by the chordal shadows of Alvardo. But nearly every track is slathered with horns that mass, slide in-and-out of sync, and gorgeously ripple, building on Alvardo’s long tones. The breath-driven choir includes cornetists Josh Berman and Ben LaMar Gay and reedists Nick Mazzarella and Mai Sugimoto. Abrams takes full advantage of the expanded line-up to elaborate and push forward the band’s previous engagement with classic minimalist methods, and the massed horns frequently evoke the kind of psychedelic harmonic effects that sparkle through music composed in just intonation, although as far as I know the tuning here is standard. This experience is present to powerful effect on “Immemorial,” where Drake’s table punctures a starkly austere long tone unison, threaded by some kind of quietly needling electronic tone I can’t suss out. It’s not listed in the credits, so, who knows, it could be some glorious psychoacoustic effect? On the other hand, Abrams switches to bass on this track, summoning the spirt of Henry Flynt, with resplendently grainy tones that seem to hold the horns within its spectral tuning.
Indeed, nothing is quite as it seems, as the group retains its strong jazz footing, particularly through the extended solos by the 79-year old Brown—a founding member of the Awakening, which made a couple of overlooked classics for the Black Jazz label in the early 1970s, before he toured extensively with Elvin Jones and became a bedrock of Kahil El’Zabar’s Ritual Trio with bassist Malachi Favors. Abrams has previously featured Brown’s excellent playing on the bassist’s 2020 quartet album Cloud Script (RogueArt), which I had the pleasure of writing liner notes for. He sounds as good as ever, a brilliant player who deserves a lot more recognition.
Here and there the formula is altered, such as the effective addition of harp arpeggios played by Kara Bershad on “Murmuration,” where Stein and Avery are absent and Mazzarella and Sugimoto (on alto sax and flute, respectively) shape silken, beautifully textured swells alongside Alvarado, all pushed along by Drake on tar—the Arabic frame drum. Here the sound is completely rooted in the ensemble, with subtle shifts in accent and phrasing offering an almost aural illusion a la the magical motion of airborne starlings, where the enchantment comes from the collective movement, not the action of any single bird. Abrams takes it solo on “Wane,” demonstrating the percussive snap of his instrument while tracing out galloping lines I could imagine Paul McCartney playing. “Stigmergy,” which you can hear below, embraces, marginally, a more jazz-like form, where a series of incisive improvisations spill out of a cycling form, red-hot with concise, excellent statements from various horn players, but the background is constantly altered, with each horn player forming a lapidary fabric with just one or two shifting tones, almost hocket-like in its methodology, while producing something more meditative and cosmic.
I’ve listened to the album at least a dozen times thus far, and I’m still coming to grips with it. Each new spin yields previously unnoticed details, and there are few gifts in music greater than that sort of expanding consciousness.
Brad Henkel swings and striates:
Trumpeter Brad Henkel is one of the more elusive figures on Berlin’s improvised music scene, a New Yorker who works in various jazz-oriented ensembles while digging into more experimental explorations of pure sound. He’s not especially prolific when it comes to recordings, and since moving to Berlin in 2017 there have only been a handful of albums documenting his work here. And most of them, such as his terrific 2020 duo album with fellow trumpeter Jacob Wick, weren’t even made with musicians based in the city. I haven’t heard a recent trio album he made with Berlin-based drummer Sam Hall and New York guitarist Dustin Carlson called Recoil (Aut) He’s a friendly fellow who doesn’t seem especially solitary, although that’s the context of his recent album Croon (Neither Nor), which dropped in late March.
The album’s credits are sparse, so I can’t say exactly what he’s doing on the acerbic opener “Bay,” which features a pair of overdubbed lines using what sounds like a saxophone reed attached to his horn, but he digs deep, unleashing a decidedly harsh dialogue of extended techniques. Check it out for yourself, below. Other pieces evoke a more familiar experimental trumpet language one might associate with locals as disparate as Axel Dörner, Liz Allbee, and Mazen Kerbaj. “Whir” is built around unpitched breaths and puckered extreme upper register cries, but Henkel spontaneously assembles them cogently and dramatically, toggling between polarities with rhythmic disruption and forceful execution. On the gorgeous title track he reveals a purer, more jazz-oriented focus, applying his creamy tone within a fluid series of melodic elaborations marked by post-bop swoops and agile flurries, while I love the fragile whistling that careens with guttural low-end, percussive valve clacking and popping, and spittle-flecked drones on “Chant.”
Henkel plays solo twice in the coming week. On Thursday, May 11 he plays an opening set at KM28, followed by the local new music group Apparat (which in this instance is Weston Olencki on trombone and electronics, tackling “Bury Me Deep” by British composer and Distractfold member Sam Salem. He’ll play solo again on Sunday, May 14 at Kapelle am Urban, beginning at 7:45 PM sharp. It’s part of a double bill, in which he’ll also play amplified trumpet in a duo with Miako Klein on amplified recorders.
Mike Majkowski’s rarefied ambience:
Mike Majkowski is part of Berlin’s significant community of Australian expats pursuing a series of genre-agnostic pathways. He’s well known for his long-term membership in Splitter Orchestra, the shape-shifting improvisational ensemble, but he’s part of many other projects including Das B. (with Magda Mayas, Tony Buck, and Mazen Kerbaj), Illogical Harmonies (with Johnny Chang), and Oren Ambarchi’s new ensemble Carpe Diem, among others. I think of him primarily as a double bassist, but he’s been making lots of music with electronics. Earlier this year he dropped Coast (Fragments Editions), which consists of two lengthy meditations built around steady bass pulsations, but fleshed out with elusive electronics. “Spiral” throbs around an almost numbing synthetic cymbal stroke and a simple bass ostinato, but within that framework he constructs a steadily morphing sound world of flickering tones, and beautiful aqueous electronics that play within a harmonically-warped hall of mirrors. It’s ambient music, more or less, and while it doesn’t hit hard, it’s no kind of bland aural wallpaper. Instead Majkowski guides us through a sonic meditation that never stays in any one place, even while it’s rooted in a very earthy, seductive grounding. The album’s second piece, “Later,” is no less beguiling, exploring a similar, stripped-down approach.
Majkowski will play this music as part of a Kiezsalon concert on Saturday, May 13 at Collegium Hungaricum. The bill also includes the duo of Chris Newman and Luciano Chessa, vibraphonist Els Vandewyer, and Hungarian violinist Luca Kézdy making her Berlin debut.
Spiral Sunday #5 with Michael Winter and Xavier Lopez & Bryan Eubanks:
Composer Michael Winter, like a handful of other savvy Americans, got the hell out of dodge during the pandemic and relocated to Berlin. Still, opportunities to experience his music live don’t occur so often, so don’t sleep on the chance to do so on Sunday, May 14 at Petersburg Arts Space, when the Spiral Sunday series presents two of his works. I can’t say anything about a new work entitled seeds and ledgers (abstract), but I have enjoyed the time I’ve spent listening to a lot of tiles (trivial scan). Winter, who studied closely with James Tenney at CalArts, makes much of his work using elaborate systems. Honestly, I don’t understand how many of them function, including this one, a recording of which was featured on his 2022 double album Counterfeiting in Colonial Connecticut (XI). The CD package includes two hand-stamped iterations of the titular “tiles” tucked away in the booklet. These mathematical tiles, also known as tessellations, are patterns used to cover planar surfaces dating back to 4000 BC when Sumerians used clay tiles with them to decorate walls. Periodic tiling uses identical, repeating forms, but aperiodic tiling features slight alterations that prevent repetition. As Winter writes in his liner note essay:
A rectangle substitution tiling is generated by dissecting a rectangle into 4 smaller rectangles, which are then dissected into 8 even smaller rectangles, and so on. Rectangles can produced both periodic and non-periodic tilings and thus are not strictly aperiodic. A strictly aperiodic set of titles consists of a group of geometric shapes that submit only non-periodic tilings.
Okay, got it. Winter used these tilings as parameters for the piece, where the orientation of the black-and-white patterns determines volume and other qualities of the computer score. The recording on the CD features nine parts, some of which are complemented by parts played by Elliot Simpson on bass and Omar López on baritone saxophone—you can listen to “2321111,” featuring both, below. I hear an alien throb in the computer sounds, with infinitesimal variations occurring throughout, even though the nine parts seem the same at first blush. I’m not sure how Winter will present this live, since no details about who’s performing are mentioned.
The duo of Xavier Lopez and Bryan Eubanks also perform on Sunday, exploring the same process and materials used on their fantastic 2021 album Natural Realms (Sacred Realism). The music was recorded in 2016, and the CD has grown on me over time, expanding from initial surprise at hearing a clave featured so prominently on an experimental piece. Eubanks has used that instrument regularly over the years—and he did so again recently in a performance with visiting composer Sean Meehan that I unfortunately missed. Although much different than the music of Winter, the work also relies on a system designed by the two musicians, deploying harmonics and feedback, which is brilliantly disrupted by Eubanks not only on clave, but also soprano saxophone. As you can hear on the album’s second piece “Realm 2,” the beautifully hypnotic work smudges boundaries between ambient, minimalist, and process music. The musicians tweak and alter the system in real time, injecting a pulse-quickening volatility that renders its meditative quality as something subversive if not exactly dangerous. As spare as the performances are, they maintain a weird kind of dry funk. It’s become one of my favorite things to get lost within.
Recommended concerts in Berlin this week:
May 9: Carminho, 8 PM, Berliner Philharmoniker, Herbert-von-Karajan-Str. 1
May 11: JACK Quartet (Lachenmann, Burhans, Zorn), 7:30 PM, Pierre Boulez Saal, Französische Straße 33d, 10117 Berlin
May 12: Yorgos Dimitriadis solo, Andrea Parkins/Tony Elieh/ Yorgos Dimitriadis, 8 PM, Morphine Raum, Köpenicker Str. 147, 10997 Berlin, Hinterhof 1.Etage
May 12 : Declan Forde, Tobias Delius, James Banner & Han Bennink; 8 PM, KM28, Karl-Marx-Straße 28, 12043 Berlin
May 13 : Declan Forde, Tobias Delius, James Banner & Han Bennink; 8 PM, KM28, Karl-Marx-Straße 28, 12043 Berlin
May 13: Potsa Lotsa XL & Youjin Sung, 8 PM, House of Music, Revalerstrasse 99, 10245 Berlin
May 13: Love in Exile (Arooj Aftab, Vijay Iyer, Shahzad Ismaily), 10:15 PM, XJazz Festival, Emmauskirche, Lausitzer Pl. 8 A, 10997 Berlin