Chris Robinson has never met Kate Hudson.
If you’ve been paying attention to the contemporary jazz scene over the last couple of years you’d know that along with London, Chicago is home to some of today’s most exciting, innovative, and diverse music, from abstract avant-garde free improvisation to funky Afro-centric soul jazz. Just take a look at any number of “best albums of 2019” lists—jazz or otherwise—and you’re bound to encounter a whole heap of Chicago and Chicago-adjacent artists, such as the live recording by the seminal Art Ensemble of Chicago celebrating their 50th anniversary and saxophonist Matana Roberts’s continuing sonic exploration of the Black American experience. And it’s just about a guarantee that any of those lists will feature one, and probably multiple, releases from Chicago’s International Anthem label. In just a short period of time, International Anthem has quickly built a consistently strong and deep catalog that features the likes of drummer Makaya McCraven and guitarist Jeff Parker.
Ism, the stunning debut album from bassist Junius Paul, is the latest addition to the label’s arsenal.
Ism might technically be a debut record, but it’s not the work of a young musician still finding his voice. A member of the Art Ensemble of Chicago and McCraven’s group, the 32-year-old Paul is no rookie. As Ism demonstrates, he is a bandleader with a vision and a virtuosic bassist with the uncommon ability to hold the ensemble together and take compelling solos. Paul grew up in Chicago, and like so many musicians, got his start playing in church. But he honed his craft playing in jam sessions at The Velvet Lounge on the city’s South Side. There he learned from his elders like saxophonist Fred Anderson (who owned The Velvet Lounge) and his peer group, many of whom are members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. In these jam sessions Paul did more than just build his chops; he built relationships and a community, the results of which are on full display throughout Ism.
On paper, Ism might seem to be an unwieldy beast: 17 tracks spread across 82 minutes and two LPs; eight recording sessions in various studios and venues between 2016 and 2019. Fifteen musicians configured into six or seven different ensembles. Audacious and ambitious? Certainly. A mess? Absolutely not. It’s a celebration and representation of the diversity of voices and perspectives that exist within every thriving community. In a way, the myriad styles and musical influences on display make Ism a snapshot of the current Chicago scene.
Ism’s core group is the quartet of Paul, Corey Wilkes on trumpet, Justin Dillard on keys, and Vincent Davis on drums, which appears on nearly half of the album. The foursome’s contributions represent the diversity of approaches and styles that course throughout Ism. They open proceedings with “You Are Free to Choose,” which is a high intensity avant-garde burn that features Dillard’s helter skelter piano lines, Paul’s thumping and surging bass, and Davis’s thick polyrhythms. Wilkes hangs back, and when he enters he contributes just a handful of spare, longer notes to give contrast. The piece fades abruptly, but the energy that radiates outward gives you the feeling it could have gone on all night. That same energy and sense of purpose continues on “The One Who Endures,” an uptempo, hard-charging post-Coltrane adventure and the blistering fast “Collant Denier,” on which Paul and Davis whip Wilkes and Dillard into some sideways bebop. The quartet change gears on “Twelve Eighteen West” and channel the Art Ensemble of Chicago. It’s super sparse with plenty of silent moments.
The group pulls out a battery of little instruments: shakers, bells, cymbals, anything that can make a soft percussive sound. Here the band is more about texture and color and space than tempo, melody, and rhythm. The quartet is also the force behind the album’s centerpiece “Spocky Chainsey Has Re-Emerged,” which takes up the entire second side of the first LP. With Wilkes’s trumpet and Dillard’s Fender Rhodes and organ leading the way, they take a deep dive into some of Miles’s Bitches Brew.
Interspersed in between the quartet’s performances are three tracks flipped and chopped by McCraven, who co-produced the album. The first of which, “Baker’s Dozen,” is an absolute banger. Joining Paul are Rajiv Halim on alto sax, Jim Baker on ARP synth, and Isaiah Spencer on drums. Paul and Spencer link up to lay down some serious boom bap that supports Baker’s crunchy ARP and Halim’s restrained, yet still funky, alto. Given the opportunity, Black Thought or Oddisee would destroy this beat. The brief “Georgia” and its slower, funky backbeat, is more of an aperitif that kicks off Ism‘s second half. “Paris” is an eleven-minute epic that demonstrates both the genius of Paul’s, McCraven’s, and trumpeter Marquis Hill’s playing as well as McCraven’s production.
As opposed to the editing on some of Miles’s electric albums—especially Miles Davis at Filmore—in which the edits are painfully obvious, it’s damn near impossible to discern where McCraven pulled out his sampler. Were Hill’s melodies, Paul’s bass lines, and McCraven’s fills looped and repeated live on stage, or at McCraven’s workstation? Given the musicians’ virtuosity and creativity to throw down in the moment and McCraven’s brilliance as a beat-maker, either is possible. Only the musicians know.
The album’s final third consists of even more different groups, textures, and approaches. Spencer and cellist Tomeka Reid join Paul on “Fred Anderson and a Half” and “Ma and Dad.” The former is a highly rhythmic and at times hypnotizing jam on which Reid plays pizzicato throughout and Paul slaps his bass strings. The latter is more free form, loose, and amorphous, with the string players bowing up slabs of sound. “Sprouts” (possibly mixed by McCraven) is two-songs-in-one: it first features tenorman Irvin Pierce over a rock-ish funk beat and then switches up dramatically into a more free-jazz mode. Even though “Sprouts” and the album as a whole is shot through with a multiplicity of styles, it manages to hang together.
It wasn’t until about the fourth or fifth time I listened to Ism where I realized there isn’t a single “tune” on the whole thing. Yeah, there are recurring melodies, steady ostinato and grooves, and the musicians are all on the same page and share a common language, but it blew me away that it took so many listens to recognize that the entire album is free. Normally that’s something I pick up immediately. In the absence of a unifying set of compositions, two aspects unite the album: first, is Paul’s presence as a bassist.
Whether walking, furiously strumming, playing arco double stops, or swapping his upright for an electric, his time is and tone is absolutely rock solid and his lines are endlessly inventive. Since he’s up in the mix a little higher than he would be if it wasn’t his album, the listener gets to easily take in the work of a masterful bassist. The second unifying factor is that aside from being a killer record, Ism represents the diversity of what Black music has been, is now, and can be in the future. Yes, it’s jazz—of many kinds, but it’s also hip hop and funk and so on. In short, it’s the epitome of the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s slogan: Great Black Music, Ancient to the Future.
Ism wraps up with Paul thanking the audience and all the people who took part and helped in the recording process. It’s a powerful reminder that music is and always has been a social practice that exists in a community. New York might be “the jazz capital of the world,” but it’s the thriving, dynamic, and innovative musical community that Paul and his cohorts have inherited and are continuing to build that makes Chicago the place I most want to be.