It has been Chicago, not New York, that has been the confluence of music of Europe, jazz of the Americas, and improvised music. Whereas NYC claims all things to be "New York" (sort of like Al Gore inventing the internet), music makers in Chicago identify and defer to varying regional influences.
Such is the case on Cipher, where seemingly disparate forces come together to create heady and engaging music. But then leader Josh Abrams has made a career of such things. He began with the Philadelphia hip-hop outfit The Roots, before moving to Chicago and playing with David Boykin, Matana Roberts, and the minimalist band Town & Country. For this quartet he pulls together German-born trumpeter Axel Dörner, Argentinean ex-pat modern composer Guillermo Gregorio and Chicago underground superstar guitarist Jeff Parker (Tortoise, Isotope 217, Tricolor).
Dörner sets aside the electronic effects here to showcase his acoustic playing. With every track anchored by Abrams bass, the players are "free" to move in disparate directions. They seldom do. Dörner, applies his trademark slurring growls, pops and breathy delivery, playing here totally in support of the quartet.
The disc opens with “Mental Politician,” an open-ended affair with each musician tossing solos into the mix. This tribute to freedom is soon replaced by the droning tones of “And See,” where minimal clarinet and trumpet tones are mixed from three recordings on top of each other. The effect is mediative, as is the minimal title track with its undertones of distant raging fires.
Presented with these free-feeling pieces are bits and samples of bop and swing. “Background Beneath” could have been part of a Lennie Tristano show forty years ago, as Gregorio plays some joyous Paul Desmond lines and Jeff Parker tosses in a bit of Joe Pass.
The players, not beholden to any particular style or era, seem intent not so much to create a melting pot, but to align differing approaches to music as if to show how they all fit into that complex Chicago puzzle of music making.