At Lumen Field last night, Beyoncé was dazzling about 70,000 fans. Simultaneously, six-and-a-half miles north at Neptune Theatre, Chicago's Natural Information Society were playing before a crowd whose number may have matched that of Bey's entourage. Nevertheless, Joshua Abrams's quartet of cerebral minimalists, in their own understated way, riveted their aficionados with two epic pieces over their 90-minute set. The scandalously tiny attendance did not faze Natural Information Society at all. (If it makes them feel any better, a man with long COVID traveled from Portland to see the show.)
The night's first song—a new, as yet untitled piece—began with drummer Mikel Patrick Avery's simple rhythms, Lisa Alvarado's harmonium growls, Jason Stein's gentle wisps of bass clarinet, and Abrams's cyclical guimbri strums. (The latter is a three-stringed Moroccan lute whose weathered body made it look as if it were built in the early 20th century.) Individually, these parts may not seem all that impressive, but when interwoven with the deftness NIS display, the motifs cohere into mesmerizing patterns that subtly wax and wane, shine and mute. At times, I felt as if I were levitating out of my seat.
About halfway through the 38-minute track, the music took on the aspect of a huge organism inhaling and exhaling deeply, as if in a kundalini yoga session. Ever so gradually, a subliminal funkiness asserted itself, as the ur groove incrementally changed, augmented by Stein's ice-cold, Eric Dolphy-esque clarinet sighs. Heads nodded to the beats as if we were at some alternative-reality hip-hop gig. Throughout, Abrams's guimbri was a subterranean presence, a phantom heartbeat, a ghostly twang pitched somewhere between acoustic guitar and stand-up bass. If ever the phrase “greater than the sum of its parts” applied to a group, Natural Information Society proved it with this piece.
The second track, “descension (Out of Our Constrictions),” began with Abrams's four-minute guimbri solo that was equal parts earthy, hypnotic, and thunderous, after which Avery delivered measured rimshots. Three minutes later, harmonium and bass clarinet entered the frame and soon after the tempo increased to maybe 130 bpm. Avery put tambourine on the hi-hat and things began to sound like the most organic techno I've ever heard.
While everyone was manifesting this shimmering, quicksilver groove, Stein flew off into more conventional jazz territory, blowing a mellifluous solo that sometimes tilted into hoarse gusts. While it would've been nice to have legendary British saxophonist Evan Parker onstage (he plays on the album from which this work comes), NIS more than ably extrapolated on the recorded version. After the show, a friend described the performance as a combination of “Charlemagne Palestine's Strumming Music and Charles Mingus,” and he wasn't wrong.
NIS's set did what the greatest minimalist improvisation or composition does: It makes you think that all other music is farcically overwrought. The players drilled down to the core of their cumulative musical expertise and brought us a rarefied species of sonic transcendence. Wish you were there.