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Josh Abrams: Cipher

Derek Taylor By

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Josh Abrams: Cipher Delmark’s long been about giving local Chicago and Midwest talent a shot. As such, Bob Koester’s decision to place a patronly bet on the talents of bassist Abrams with this debut disc isn’t so unusual. Where the surprise arrives is in the band of compatriots Abrams assembled for the session.

Dörner and Gregorio are from Germany and Argentina respectively. Each represents a colorful braiding of current strains of creative energy in improvised music. The former’s deconstructionist tendencies are widely documented. So is his near supernatural ability to eke out virtually any sound from his brass. Gregorio’s reputation carries a similar sterling value. His accomplishments as composer and improvisor regularly incorporate a multi-disciplinary approach by integrating elements from the visual and architectural arts into his music. Jeff Parker personifies the final piece in the four-prong puzzle. He continues to shine brightly across a solar system of musical spheres, from the ambient technotronica of Tortoise to regular jazz gigs with Fred Anderson and his own trio.

Abrams opens the program up to pieces by his partners along with a small handful of his own compositions. The title track and “And See” come from a studio date, while the others are the wheat shaken from a harvestable Empty Bottle gig. All four men are as adept at playing abstract sound patterns, as they are more conventional jazz structures. This sort of stylistic straddling drives the music from the initial interplay of “Mental Politician.” Abrams and Parker reel out percolating pizzicato lines down the middle while the horns voice terse phrasings along the stereo channel flanks. Dörner capitalizes on the first of many chances to show off his abilities at conjuring static-charged acoustic tones from his trumpet. Gregorio’s alto is less alien in intonation. He races through a range of upper register trills and smeared notes.

“And See” is conversely awash in luminous layered drones, making it difficult to localize to any single instrument. Parker uses sustain pedals in conjunction with Gregorio’s limpid clarinet and the burnished metallic gleam of Dörner’s horn to create a dynamic topography of rising and falling tones. “Neo Nimaj Nero” radiates from a loping jazz bass line and Parker’s lilting single note lines. Soon, Gregorio’s lyrical clarinet further elaborates on a coalescing thematic thread. And so the chameleonic colloquy continues through another seven cuts.

If there’s a downside to this exploratory journey, it's perhaps in the extended duration of the trip. While ideas flow plentifully, the program seems a shade too long and could have benefited from a bit of judicious editing. Still, listener patience consistently pays strong dividends.

In the disc’s notes, Abrams explicitly states his desire to see the band outlive the single string of dates documented herein. Based on the quality of the musical ore they’ve tapped, I’m inclined to agree.


Track Listing: Mental Politician; And See; Neb Nimaj Nero; Cipher; Calamities Break; No Theory; Background Beneath; First Tune That Night; Space Modulator; For SK.

Personnel: Josh Abrams - Bass; Axel D

Title: Cipher | Year Released: 2003 | Record Label: Delmark Records


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