Joshua Abrams Quartet | Unknown Known | RogueArt Jazz

rogueart jazz

Joshua Abrams: double bass | David Boykin: tenor saxophone | Jason Adasiewicz: vibraphone | Frank Rosaly: drums

All compositions by Joshua Abrams, LOSPOTREROS (ASCAP)

Recorded by Neil Strauch on December 12th 2010 at Engine Studios, Chicago, IL, USA. Mixing: Griffin Rodriguez at Shape Shoppe West. Mastering: Jean-Pierre Bouquet, L’Autre Studio, Vaires-sur-Marne, France. Liner notes: Alexandre Pierrepont. Photograph: Lisa Alvarado. Cover design: Max Schoendorff. Cover realisation: David Bourguignon, URDLA. Producer: Michel Dorbon

Track list: 1. Unknown Known (7:46) 2. Boom Goes the Moon (11:11) 3. Settle Down (8:16) 4. Look Through It (6:22) 5. Leavening (12:11) 6. Pool (3:33)

Joshua Abrams Quartet | Unknown Known | rogueart jazz

Sleeping waters within running waters

This is how the story begins. During an afternoon stroll, Joshua Abrams heard music behind him. He turned around, but the music was still behind him. He then dozed off, the music so obvious, he laid down besides its source. As he daydreamed, the music flowed unrestrained and grew within Joshua like a plant until, in the same way our hands extend from our sleeves, branches extended from his hands. An upright bass was there (it is told Wilbur Ware, Malachi Favors Maghostut, and Fred Hopkins, once encountered such a phenomenon, and that within Chicago lies a forest of bass players).

Here is another beginning to the same story: “I grew up in Philadelphia. In the school orchestra, when they were handing out instruments, I was given an upright bass, because I was a bit tall for my age… But it wasn’t until I discovered Monk and Coltrane in high school that I really wanted to get involved. By that, I don’t mean becoming a professional musician, but rather to invest myself personally, to consider upright bass in a different light and ask: “Well, how am I going to do this?” I studied jazz on my own, but I never stuck to only one type of music, instead I instantly noticed the continuum between all the expressions, between sound and mind. All musical forms are related to life. Their apparent diversity is only a sign of the times. Because things and beings have a reciprocal influence on each other, but not in a linear fashion, not only through time: a stronger bond than that of cause and effect unites them…” So it is a stronger bond uniting Joshua Abrams’ turbulent experience with The Roots from the time he still lived in Philadelphia, and his impassive experience with Bonnie Prince Billy in his adopted town of Chicago. A stronger bond unites his learning experiences from playing the standards with Jodie Christian and heading the Sunday evening jam sessions at Fred Anderson’s Velvet Lounge, and eventually playing with him often before he passed away. A stronger bond unites his first trio with Ron Dewar and Robert Barry and Sticks & Stones, his trio with Matana Roberts and Chad Taylor (and other companionship with David Boykin, with Nicole Mitchell, with Hamid Drake). A stronger bond unites his descent into the crater of dreaming music with Town & Country and his ascension along the slope of awakening music with the Natural Information Society. A stronger bond unites his former free improvisation quartet with Guillermo Gregorio, Axel Dorner and Jeff Parker, and his current quartet with four strong leaders of the Chicago scene, for which it seems he began writing again. During the Fall of 2009, a few concerts in the town’s favored clubs (at the Rodan, the Hide Out, The Hungry Brain, and the Velvet Lounge, a few days after Fred Anderson’s passing) sufficed to turn this assemblage into an assembly.

Seems he began writing again. This project is truly original insofar as Joshua Abrams succeeded in importing his experiences with hypnotic music into writing for a “jazz” quartet — if that word itself still functions as a sesame more than a guarantee. That is to say: a consummated art of digression, of tying and untying the meaning, the form and the formless. Each of his composition (of his apparatus) introduces itself well, and holds its promises from a certain point of view, or point of hearing, but almost each time furtively shifts to a point where this more or less profound transformation may take place unnoticed. However, something did take place, something caught on or hurried on, something is changing throughout the composition, modifies its logical, expected unfolding, although it is not a transition (this is not an extended composition or a suite), and it lets us enter, always imperceptibly, in another time frame than that which was laid out. It is a prematurely frozen or overly developing solo. It’s a part of the group which has already moved on to something else. It’s a sequence leading to nothing or obsessing over something… It moves along (without any obvious tone breaks, or any effects of collage), nothing happens “as expected” (the course of events never takes place as a simple succession, a cause and effect bond) — meaning, as could be presumed or foreboded from the initial start, it thus seems to play a role of capturing and diverting the attention. Truthfully, this art of digression conjures the forces of stasis and dynamism, of what supposedly stagnates, or what supposedly evolves.

Joshua Abrams Quartet | Unknown Known | rogueart jazz

Joshua Abrams knows very well what he is doing when he names this collection of hidden doors, “Unknown Known”. It reminds us that music is no more, no less than a collection of rules its players create and freely undo. There are limitations – those of physical, technical or intellectual means, which are also strengths, they are pendulums, they are propellers — but they are not like “the rules”, a constraining order created from without, independent from the self and the others. Man reaches the unknown only through the limits of the known, and even the known sometimes forgets itself and discovers itself again, and again: the infinite is not an object of transcendence. Thus the rule itself must be played, won or lost, exchanged or sacrificed. Even better: the giving or giving up of the rule guarantees the game’s perenniality. “Unknown Known” may also evoke Henri Michaux’s words in “Les Commencements”:

only circles go around
around what, we don’t know
the known, the unknown passing
coming, which came,
and will come back

Let us go back to the diverse beginnings of things. Notice then how, in Unknown Known, “things” seem to settle in, so much so and so well they immediately freeze, before uncoiling, disintegrating, tearing apart, and come back as shadows. Notice how, on Boom goes the Moon, the theme is enmeshed then hypnotic, and the second part, like a harmonious cloud floats before imperturbably exploding. Notice how on Settle Down, a rooted melodico-rhythmical motif is unearthed in all possible ways: one after the other, the musicians take off embarking with them the whole thing, which eventually reassembles. Notice how on Look Through It, everything is centered around polarization: the dice are cast but nothing unfolds, everything changes, below, above, as if in a kaleidoscope where even after all the possible adjustments are made, the mobile fragments of colored glass don’t produce any definite shape anymore. The approach, how we choose to listen, all are sowing needles. Notice then how, on Leavening, the music with its necklace of resonances sink into the ground, digs a groove, pries a breach open, splits a wound, to show a myriad offish. And within its net is a theme which arrives late, it sets off, it’s a theme created to trigger shivers. Notice how, on Pool, the running waters are now within the sleeping waters. This music is at times called “creative” because it invents new uncommon relationships between things and beings which have a reciprocal influence on each other. The music is right in front of you. Wander into the music. — Alexandre Pierrepont (translation Romain Tesler)

RogueArt continues its Chicago jazz love affair with Unknown Known

a quartet featuring Josh Abrams on bass, David Boykin on tenor sax, Jason Adasiewicz on vibes, and Frank Rosaly on drums. In many ways, Unknown Known sticks to those Chicago roots: even it its wilder flights, it always has a foot planted in composition and structure. It’s jazz that comes up under the tutelage of the AACM, which constantly pushed boundaries without ever entirely dispensing with them.

Though Abrams is billed as the leader, Adasiewicz tends to be the dominant voice (as with many projects he’s involved with). This isn’t a bad thing. Personally, I can’t get enough of his enormous, pulsing field of overtones. A 2011 New York Times article touched upon a lot of what makes his sound unique: hitting the instrument hard, frequent use of the sustain pedal, an interest in creating distorted, almost feedback-like effects, and keeping the sound of the vibes consistently in the mix, “rumbl[ing] along with the rhythm section.”

The downside to Adasiewicz’s colossal harmonic artifice is that it needs to be well-miked and recorded, and in its more frenzied moments, Unknown Known can leave a bit to be desired. At times, Abrams’ bass is nearly subsumed in waves of vibraphone and cymbals. Thankfully, he pushes through loud and clear when it’s time to rein everyone back in, laying out strutting basslines that snap everything back into focus.

There are some great tracks here, such as the funky “Settle Down” and the epic “Boom Goes the Moon,” but many seem cast of a similar mold, progressing from laid-back theme to building tension to out-and-out free improv and back again. I wish more of it could be as arresting as the first four minutes of “Leavening,” a great, moody bass solo over slow, tribal drums and gentle swells of vibes and sax. Boykin has a robust tone on tenor, but he feels under-utilized. He does have a handful of intense moments on the frontline, but it’s hard to compete with the sheer density of Adasiewicz and Rosaly.

Unknown Known is another solid release from RogueArt, and another reminder that the Midwest continues to be fertile ground for outsider jazz. — Dan Sorrells


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One thought on “Joshua Abrams Quartet | Unknown Known | RogueArt Jazz

  1. “There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns—there are things we do not know we don’t know.” Strangely, Donald Rumsfeld didn’t mention the unknown known: the things we don’t acknowledge that we know. While the sleeve notes contain no reference to the former Secretary of State, the choice of title for the début by Chicago bassist Joshua Abrams’ Quartet makes the connection inevitable. Of course, in one sense, the procedure of improvisation is an attempt to unlock new things which we don’t think we know. It’s an approach which the bassist airs thoroughly on the six cuts which constitute this disc.

    Abrams proves an intriguing composer, working through both known and unknown constructs, often corralling several novel gambits into one title. He has chosen with care his collaborators from the Windy City’s fertile scene. On tenor saxophone and bass clarinet, David Boykin is one of the town’s better kept secrets, largely flying below the wider critical radar in spite of his long association with flautist Nicole Mitchell. His sinewy lines, with more than a hint of a young Sonny Rollins, often hew close to the lower registers where they contrast with the ringing vibes of Jason Adasiewicz. There can’t be too many vibraphonists who can hold their own with reed titan Peter Brotzmann as Adasiewicz has on more than one occasion, and his shimmering counterpoint keeps options wide open harmonically, while the physicality he brings to his instrument makes for a powerful solo voice.

    Abrams doesn’t make himself prominent, but meshes closely with drummer Frank Rosaly, as the pair switch in and out of tempo with practised smoothness. Rosaly also confirms himself an inventive texturalist, adding an important ingredient to the leader’s conception. On the title track, different time signatures between drums and bass overlap to create an uneasy momentum which spawns a potent freeform passage for the rhythm team before being abetted by Boykin’s tenor skronk. The uncompromising stance continues via a scratchy bowed bass/squawking tenor duet, before finally resolving into a stately unison theme. Such multiple episodes also characterize the following “Boom Goes the Moon,” before a second half which evolves into a lilting ballad in which the reedman drifts and soars majestically.

    Thereafter matters become slightly more predictable. “Settle Down” starts at a lope with a nagging bass clarinet refrain, before opening out for some spirited work from tenor and vibes, while the brief “Pool” features gently swinging tenor over a faster tempo. “Leavening” is more of a surprise, possessing a ritual feel, accentuated by Rosaly’s off kilter stomp and the leader’s vocalized arco. It also boasts Boykin’s strongest outing of the set, as he surges over a choppy pulse until edging into the falsetto range to finish. While all perfectly enjoyable, it is on the less straightforward, lesser-known tracks where the ensemble grabs the attention most.

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