Hieroglyphic Being & the J.I.T.U. Ahn-Sahm-Buhl: We Are Not the First

Given the participation of long-time Sun Ra Arkestra member Marshall Allen, the J.I.T.U. Ahn-Sahm-Buhl can't help but retain a strong tie to Sun Ra's pioneering brand of cosmic jazz. Yet Ornette Coleman is arguably a more relevant touchstone, considering the generous amount of harmolodic blood that runs through the veins of this collaborative effort between Hieroglyphic Being (Chicago-based house producer Jamal Moss) and the ensemble, which also includes Elliot Levin, Daniel Carter, Greg Fox, Shelley Hirsch, Shahzad Ismaily, Rafael Sanchez, and Ben Vida. Nowhere is that more apparent than during We Are Not the First's epic title track, an eighteen-minute dynamo that re-imagines Free Jazz for 2015. Further to that, We Are Not the First's zoned-out sprawl at times recalls the sound of Ornette's Prime Time (both iterations), and a few tracks (e.g., “Civilization That is Dying”) call to mind Science Fiction when Hirsch's vocals are factored into the equation (“Brain Damage” even includes a sing-song motif that could have been written by Ornette himself).

Certainly no house producer would appear to be better equipped to take on the challenge of working with a free-wheeling collective than Moss, whose restless, shape-shifting productions exude spontaneity and invention. His tracks are characterized by an unpredictability that has considerably more in common with jazz's improv-driven approach than the comparatively more metronomic style associated with electronic dance music. Bolstering the simpatico nature of the collaboration, the artists also grapple with cosmological themes in their respective musics: Moss, for instance, recently issued the compilation set Seer of Cosmic Visions on Planet Mu, and the Sun Ra Arkestra has, of course, been associated with cosmic jazz for decades.

Though synthesizers and electronics share the frontline with the saxophones and flutes of Allen, Levin, and Carter, any conventional separation between foreground and background typically collapses in these eleven settings; in true harmolodic fashion, instruments and voices swirl within a mix where everyone seemingly solos. Yet while that might suggest chaos as the outcome, there are guiding structures in place within each piece, yet not so much that those contributing are overly restricted in their playing.

While some tracks veer close to the underground club sound associated with Hieroglyphic Being and others emphasize the free jazz side, more often than not both realms thread their way into a given track. A case in point, Moss's persona is all over “Cybernetics is an Old Science” in the pounding house pulse that anchors the arrangement, but ensemble members also stamp their personalities on the material in the wail of their saxophones. In similar manner, Carter's ghostly sax floats across an agitated synthesizer-driven base during “Universe is a Simulation” in a way that arrestingly conjoins acoustic jazz and experimental electronics, and in a refreshing move, solo electric bass spotlights frame the Afro-futuristic swing at the center of “Pussy Thumper.” The recording's coup de grace, however, is undoubtedly “We Are Not the First” in the way its endlessly roiling harmolodic brew of flutes, saxes, trumpet, keyboards, drums, and percussion functions as both culmination and manifesto.

October 2015