TAKE one of the finest and most intuitive leftfield-into-indie jazz rhythm sections of past decades, Chicago drummer Chad Taylor and bassist Joshua Abrams, who between them amass waay over a couple hundred performance credits to their name on Discogs: for artists such as the Chicago Underground Trio and all its various spiralling iterations, Brokeback, Sam Prekop’s beautiful self-titled set and Who’s Your New Professor?, Jeff Parker, Rob Mazurek, Marc Ribot, Iron & Wine, The Roots, Edith Frost, Godspeed, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy (and breathe); let them loose together with that almost supernatural understanding they have and an esoteric collection of instrumentation more usually associated with world music than the jazz/experimental/indie that they often flower from; hit record. Bliss record. Intriguing record.
Result, also: maintenance for a frazzled mind.
Such is the pair’s latest incarnation, Mind Maintenance, which sees Joshua and Chad exploring the respective melodic and percussive possibilities of the guimbri, a three-stringed Moroccan bass usually found in that nation’s traditional gnawa musical tradition; and the mbira, the chiming, African thumb piano family of instruments that herein Chad wields as a percussive-melodic delight.
It is sorta world music, it is definitely sorta jazz, it’s also pretty much a rootsy ambient; it’s really rather cool and transporting, refusing easy categorisation in the absolute best way – oh, apart from being rather great. But it’s not, overarchingly, about any of those genres; it is about mind maintenance. It’s a music as a focus, as a door to better cognitive practice, to a spiritual health.
You see, for all their recherché standing in the world of music, the guimbri and the mbira play rather beautifully and cohesively together. They’re instruments very much of the African tradition, with their roots in a pre-industrial mode of being; their build is an organic craft, with other messy overtones and resonances that you might, were you to be sitting in a high-rise block somewhere right now conceiving a new instrument, be minded to deem a flaw that would need designing out. But it’s exactly these qualities that bring life to the world of the sound, and connection. Think warmth, think sonorousness, think real.
And that’s the nugget of it; here we is, as 2021, more devices than we can shake a (selfie) stick, micro-machined to a micrometer’s tolerance to give/sell us exactly what we’re supposed to need. Scroll, scroll, fomo, scroll, repeat. Even music, at its most globally dominating, is autotuned to the imperfection of … perfection. Yuk. There needs to be room to see and hear either side of what we’re presented with. To key in to a more grounded sound.
Thus, the three-stringed lute and the thumb piano, associated in terms of geography but, according to Drag City’s research, not a combo that’s been pursued in recorded music before – and certainly not as a dual instrumental set.
The label says: “When these sounds bounce off your cerebral cortex, the feeling you get is that of your mind breathing freely in the presence of something it has known forever.” Wise words.
Furthermore, the context and history of the instruments; the guimbri is used by the Gnawa people as part of prayer and healing rituals, as well as for secular musics; the mbira was cited as inspiration by Miles Davis when he recorded Kind Of Blue, the cool jazz touchstone which still shifts thousands of units each week, six decades on.
None of which context is any more use than a cardboard house if the album itself doesn’t transport, seduce, warm our worlds. Oh; but it so does.
As for the compositions Chad and Joshua bring forth on this album; well, they sit somewhere between composition and improvisation. With an agreed melodic theme and their years of playing together, there’s plenty of room to blur the line and move just outside the pocket. I mean, they first laid down tracks together in 1994. That’s a meshing of consciousnesses.
They reside in different cities, but play together whenever they can, whether it’s bringing the rhythmic love to a session or just jamming. The particular instrumental combination they proffer to us as Mind Maintenance came about after they tried the combination for a show in Chicago; liked very much what they found.
Chad and Joshua sought refuge from the current mindmelt of the world in their considerable musical chops, and emerged with Mind Maintenance. They invite you to come take sanctuary with them.
The opening sally, “Glow & Glimmer”, is available for your mindful delectation below. Beguiling and exploratory, think a fluvial meander, a music in the moment, meant not to refer you elsewhere in your mind, to lost loves, parties to come, old friends, anything like that; music for right now, gently cyclical, chiming, percussive, waving and not shouting. The pair lock into a pleasing pattern, explore its drone bliss, break free again for other places; Chad’s upper-register tickles and tingles particularly lovely here.
“Entrainment” has a childlike innocence to its opening theme, which Joshua’s bass winds through to form a tight and sturdy cloth, the bass adding a gentle sway to savour; it’s airy, contemplative and mantric, the subtlest variations and explorations bringing unexpected colours.
And so the album unwinds; nine tracks in all, but more of a suite than a collection of tracks. You could listen to any part of the album and it be entirely pleasing, shuffle it up in a playlist, if you’re one of those sort of people; if employed so, it would make you prick your ears up when you landed on a track. This particular scribbler reckons it stands as a cohesive whole, and that if you can’t allot it 40-ish unbroken minutes of your time then you sure as hell need to.
“The Ladder” wends a course through glimmer; shut your eyes, sense a few people about, a warm breeze, let the gentle interplay take you. “Snap Yr Teeth” is but a hundred-second fragment, playfully Tim Burtonesque – I’m getting a skull whirring and gnashing away in one of his animations; “Cyclic Boom” revolves slowly a lovely descending mbira motif, neo-classical in melody, and so complimented by all the additional tones inherent in the instrument, it very gradually decays away to the surrounding environment …. and hush … … hush.
“Valence” is a little cloudier, and the longest piece herein, at a cent short of eight minutes; it’s more of an incantation and you’ll soon blur into the main melodic stream, which seeps into the blood in chime and repetition. It’s more music to gather at dusk to than any of the preceding; a proclamation of guarding and centring to the world beyond the hearth.
“Slack Water” and “Complete Rain” are of an aqueous piece; the first fair trills and notches up subtly, the mbira gaining a higher, more intense note, and is a great atmosphere to huddle against the roiling shower bands, a really immersive African mantra, deeply cyclical (like right now, as I write); the latter bright and open, the welcome rain plashing and releasing the static and stuffiness of the air in complex polyrhythmic play, Chad’s mbira flowing ever on, that melody intricate and enveloping, bell-beautiful.
It only remains for the shorter sketch of “Mental Eyes”, a fanciful, joyous little thing, to wrap up a record that’s quietly transporting; and quiet is the operative word here. It isn’t shouting for attention in the great heaving soup of music, doesn’t grab your lapels. That would be contrary to its whole purpose. It’s earthed, exploratory, mindful.
If you’re a fan of the first, self-titled Sam Prekop album (and any right-thinking human should be), upon which Chad and Josh are the bedrock; then you’ll know the deft touch they bring to a recording. Strip back the vocals and guitars, shift it east a few thousand miles and an entire continent; that’s an imprecise guide to the essence and soul of what you get here.
So: it ain’t full of 48-track post-production and everything polished to an airless shine; but that’s what makes it lovely. It’s a record to bound you and connect you and rod the lightning strikes of how it’s all lurching out there, a behemoth of reactivity and stridency smashing its leathery way through the china shop of our civilisation. It’s a warm friend to spend downtime with, an aural vade mecum to help satisfy your mind. Take often, with water.
Mind Maintenance’s self-titled album will be released by Drag City today, June 11th, digitally and on vinyl; hey, you can make financial arrangements to secure your copy now over at the label shop and at Bandcamp.