Chamber Music America defines its genre as music for small ensembles, a form of expression that “places the highest order of responsibility on the individual to engage in a close musical dialogue with the other performers in the ensemble without the aid of a conductor.” The definition goes on to say that, as such, the form “relies on the players’ collective instincts, experience, knowledge and talents to guide interpretation, performance and rehearsal.”
That definition could easily double as bassist Josh Abrams’ philosophy of music. Abrams, a well-known figure in the Chicago jazz, rock and avant scenes, has built his career on being versatile, listening to and respecting the sounds of the people in his ensembles, whether he’s accompanying jazz saxophonist Matana Roberts (Sticks and Stones, 482 Music), playing in the Sticks and Stones combo, or performing avant soundscapes with Town and Country, as he is on the group’s latest release, the complex and far-reaching 5, released Sept. 9 on Thrill Jockey.
On 5, the bassist, along with Ben Vida (cornet, guitar, harmonium), Liz Payne (viola, hand bells, Celeste) and Jim Dorling (bass clarinet, Harmonium, glass), produces a body of work that, while subtle and quiet, proves challenging. No computers, samplers or electronics were used in the making of 5, yet songs such as “Old-Fashioned” sound fairly dense, layers of “noise” punctuating the quieter interludes. Influences ranging from world music to classical pepper the record to the effect that it reads like an ethnomusicologist’s journal: These are musicians who care deeply about the process of making music, as well as about the final result.
The accompanying press touts 5 as a continued exploration into natural music, highlighting the fact that all the sounds are acoustic, unamplified and what you’d hear in a live setting. But instead of coming off as unpolished or unrehearsed, the end result is just the opposite.
“Even though there are a lot of different sounds going on — bells, shakers, Harmonium, whatnot — you can still follow the four parts,” he explains over the telephone from his home in Chicago. “We work for months on the pieces, and they grow weirder and change. What a lot of bands spend time on in the studio is what we do in the living room, rehearsing it. When we go into the studio, we know what we want to do.”
Though 5 sounds somber and reflective at times, it is marked by a fullness, strength and clarity of sound. Songs such as “Non-stop Dancer” and “Aubergine” are sonorous and mellifluous, while Town and Country follows in the footsteps of labelmates and avant-rockers Tortoise on the acoustic white noise of “Lifestyled.” Taken together, the songs form a nature cycle, with golden bursts of sound performed by a modern-day, post-classical chamber quartet.
“We’re never just jamming,” Abrams says. “Even in ‘Lifestyled,’ there’s still some sort of melody. Specific things are designed to happen at specific times. We’re telling stories, but texture is really important in terms of the mood — and we don’t necessarily decide on a mood, we let the character of the piece blossom (into one).”
Despite Abrams’ busy schedule (he’s a regular performer at the Velvet Lounge), he’s still able to tour with Town and Country. With a very nontraditional lineup and instrumentation, the quartet finds bringing the music out of the lofts and performance spaces and into the clubs a challenging, albeit rewarding, experience.
“Sometimes a problem arises when some of the stuff we do is very quiet; the noise (from a bar) can inhibit other people’s listening,” Abrams says. “But sometimes it’s transformed the bar into a much quieter place. Usually, the music creates the mood, and people react to that.
“And everyone has a different take on it,” he continues. “So, hopefully if someone is feeling it, they can go back to the record and find different things. That way you can enjoy it and get something out of it, too.”