An Oral History of 'We Are Not The First', Hieroglyphic Being's 2-Volume Transhistorical Manifesto
Photo by Celeste Sloman.

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An Oral History of 'We Are Not The First', Hieroglyphic Being's 2-Volume Transhistorical Manifesto

For his debut on RVNG Intl, Jamal Moss enlisted a range of luminaries from avant garde music history to make a truly formidable experiential jazz epic.

Hieroglyphic Being, aka Jamal Moss, has long toiled away in dance music obscurity, putting out house, noise, and unnamable electronic variations on his own Mathematics Recordings. When Matt Werth of NYC label RVNG Intl. approached him to do a record, the Chicago producer wanted it to be a master statement, something bigger than anything he'd done before. "That's what gave me the freedom to just go for broke with this," he says. "I have nothing to lose: you're going for broke if you're already broke."

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The resulting album—recorded in Brooklyn over one week in April 2014, then rearranged in post-production—is an ensemble-driven synthesis of freeform house and jazz, pulling on collaborations with eight different avant-garde musicians young and old, collectively dubbed the J.I.T.U. Ahn-Sahm-Buhl . It features otherworldly, operatic intonations from Shelley Hirsch alongside urgent scatting from Rafael Sanchez; free jazz solos from New York saxophonist Daniel Carter, Sun Ra Arkestra saxophonist Marshall Allen, Liturgy/Guardian Alien drummer Greg Fox, and multi-instrumentalists Shahzad Ismaily and Elliott Levin; and protean synth work from Ben Vida and Moss himself.

By Moss' account, We Are Not The First's central message is contained in its title; but in conversation, he doesn't give you the exact coordinates of his meaning. Rather, he makes you extrapolate it from the three or four directions he talks in at once, each shot through with fragmentary analyses and perspectives—not unlike the arrangement on "Civilization That Is Dying," for example, where you try to engage each freewheeling voice while keeping track of the constantly evolving whole.

From what I could glean from our conversation, though, Moss is offering a manifesto about human history on a cosmic, millennia-spanning scale. "That's why the project is called We Are Not The First," he explains. "To let people know sonically what we did with this project. Let you know everything that's ancient and modern in what we did, and that everything you're listening to now is nothing new, nothing different from the first man who hit the rock to the ground to get some type of sound, or when man or woman heard the trees blow with the wind, or the birds chirping, and first thought of a sonic structure or harmony."

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The music itself sits at the intersection of generations of avant-garde styles, from acid house to scatting to or free jazz: as such, it points out links between genres sometimes thought of as existing in isolation from one another. Indeed, the collaborative aspect of We Are Not The First plays a special role in the story it has to tell, itself a manifestation of the power of cross-connection, echoing his transhistorical manifesto. In Moss' own words, the Ahn-Sahm-Buhl came together to create something "for the benefit of others," and they did so by unlocking the common ground between their disparate practices. For Moss, art plays a special role in furthering society's evolution: "I think now it's the job for artists to try to re-educate people to excel to a higher level of understanding," he explains. "If you look around history, artists have always helped evolve humanity to a higher level."

Because this record was such a community endeavor, we wanted to hear about it firsthand from some of the key figures who made it possible. Read on for an oral history of We Are Not The First from Moss himself, RVNG Intl.'s Matt Werth, and a handful of the musicians who helped make it so otherworldly.

Elliott Levin photo by Celeste Sloman.

How did the We Are Not The First sessions come about?

Matt Werth: After we researched a list of musicians that we felt would elevate the studio sessions and vetted that with Jamal, Phil [Tortoroli, RVNG Label Manager] and I hit the streets [to see who could sign on, saying,] "Jamal is making an album for a week and we'd like you involved. We're not sure what Jamal has planned or what is in store for you, but we do know that you would make an incredible addition to the experience."

Depending on the different musicians' availability, we ended up mixing and matching these different ensembles throughout the week. Jamal was the only consistent character in the cast. I think that personnel—and personality—variability influenced We Are Not The First down some sound paths that otherwise may have been underexplored had the group remained the same for the week.

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Jamal Moss: The universe just slowly brought [me and RVNG] together. I didn't really know what Matt did or who he was. When I first encountered him, I had just seen him on the scene; I didn't know he had anything to do with RVNG. You just gravitate to certain people, and if they feel that you're a perfect fit for their inner circle, they'll bring you in. Matt took a chance on me to help me express what I'm trying to express to other people.

Daniel Carter: I wanted to do this project, because since the 50s—when I sang in so-called "doo-wop" groups—I've always been into the life and evolution of what Miles Davis came to call "social music."

Ben Vida: I had talked with Matt from RVNG, and the vision he and Jamal had for the project just felt right. It wasn't clear from the outset exactly who I would be playing with or the entire scope of the ensemble. Besides gleaning a bit of insight through the mention of a track by Herbie Hancock that Jamal was digging all I really knew about the situation was that it was going to be very open, and that there would be room to experiment together and push into some weirdness.

Greg Fox: [I got involved because] it was something new. Working with people I've never worked with, especially when I'm aware of their work, is something that I have found to be generally expansive: that's the kind of experience I look for. The opportunity to contribute my DNA to something that the other musicians were also contributing theirs to was definitely something that appealed a lot to me.

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What was the dynamic like during the sessions?

Matt Werth: Jamal did his research on each musician and put a few stylistic cues in place for them to consider before entering the studio, but it certainly wasn't a mandate.

Jamal Moss: [During the recording sessions], we came into a room together, and I had the backing tracks: they were basically the question, and then the musicians responding to them was the answer. Everybody wasn't there at once to work together cohesively. They heard somebody else's answer to my question, and then the next day somebody came in, and then they gave a response to it.

If I had done notes and music theory and stuff like that, then I could have sat in the room with them [and told them exactly what to play].That just wasn't the case, so I wasn't Quincy Jones or Ray Charles or Miles Davis. [Instead] it was kind of like me giving my John Cage 4'33" of silence. I came into the room and I put the question in front of them, and they heard the beats without me really saying anything, and then applied themselves to it from their life experiences.

Shelley Hirsch: I was invited to come and improvise for a few hours with Jamal and Ben. We three improvised freely, except sometimes Jamal would say a word and I'd riff off of it, and sometimes he would say that he wanted more operatic singing. I was in the room with them, not in an isolation booth. It flowed very freely.

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Elliott Levin: Not really knowing much about the music beforehand led me to not have many expectations, or pre-judgements, which is a positive thing in this case, I would think. There was a rotation of other players throughout the one day we spent in the studio.

The strength of this session was that we were allowed to be relaxed and very much ourselves. We were actually given very little direction, other than to just respond in any way we felt appropriate to what was going on acoustically—and indeed spiritually—around us. We were encouraged to play as much, or as little, as we liked. It is always a great gift to be able to do this in the company of like-minded souls, and to create beautiful music together.

Daniel Carter: The chemistry was phenomenal. I would have loved to spend much more time with it. I hope very much—though it's a wild dream—that in the future there might be a performance/recording session/live performance for the public of us all playing live, in real time, up close and in person.

Daniel Carter photo by Celeste Sloman.

How did you understand the concept of the record?

Jamal Moss: Part of the concept of [this record] is to let people know that they can come together and appreciate multiple things without breaking each other down. Even though I might have a set of ideas, a point of view, and an ideology, I'm sure everybody else that was involved with this album has their own [too]. As human beings, we came together at that moment in time on earth and worked together collectively to create art for humanity. That's all it came down to.

Daniel Carter: For me, personally, an overarching theme of the album is that of planting seeds, that can grow toward expanding, infinitely, the multi-dimensional potentials of music. Mega-thanks to Jamal for bringing so many of us all together, into one big sound of sounds, one big spirit of spirits.

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Greg Fox: The idea was to kind of combine Jamal's way of making music with a bunch of other musicians who have particular styles and create a chimera. He wasn't sure what to expect, and he seemed pretty delighted when things started happening; that was definitely an infectious energy. [Combining these worlds] was a real alchemical kind of coming together.

Ben Vida: Since the sessions were broken up over a series of days, there was never a time when we all played together. I ended up playing with Jamal, Shelley, and Daniel. I think the sessions Shelley and I did together speak to one historical avant-garde and the sessions with Marshall and Elliott speak to another. It's the summing of these histories on this record that really appeals to me.

What is your take on combining jazz with electronics?

Daniel Carter: Working in the sphere of dance music, so to speak, is a great pleasure for me, and I want to do a whole lot more of it in the future—much sooner than later! This experience really ramped up the longstanding vision I've had to involve myself with innovative DJ/hip-hop-related musics, from abstract to concrete, whatever those terms mean. It also [felt in keeping with] my longstanding goal of contributing to the breaking down of barriers among all the different genres of music. Down with "genre apartheid!"

Elliott Levin: I have been collaborating with many creative improvising electronic musicians for many years, so it was familiar territory for me. During Marshall's extensive work with Sun Ra & The Arkestra they both pioneered the use of electronic instruments in modern jazz composition and improvisation. Sun Ra had one of the very first Moog synthesizers. They were also given samples of the very first Electronic Valve Instruments (EVIs), which Marshall plays to this day like no one else in this world, I believe.

I have played with several great synthesizer players, including Charles Cohen, a pioneer of the Buchla Sound Easel; and Don Preston, another early Moog pioneer; as well as DJs like DJ Logic, DJ Olive, King Britt, Josh Wink, and others combining electronic and recorded music in modern improvisational contexts. The music on this project was a direct extension of work that has been on-going with me for over four decades now, a continuation of the modern, eclectic fusion of progressive jazz/rock/electronic/world music.

Greg Fox: I feel like there's a certain parallel between Jamal's gestural approach to making electronic music and some of the gestures I make when I'm drumming or when I'm also making electronic music. Letting the body make the decisions and letting the eyes roll to the back of the head, trusting the gesture and the intuition.

Ben Vida: I'm really only interested in collaborations that function as an experiment. In that sense this collaboration felt very much in line with many of the others I have been a part of over the last few years. The genre matters much less than the intention.

Jamal Moss: People hear certain things around them, and they think it's new, but it's just a genetic sonic imprint or memory of something that came before it. Technically speaking, if people go back and do the research, there's tons of records [like We Are Not The First] from 68 until about 77. If you do your research and dig, you will find a lot of stuff like it. There's a lot of static interference now. Because there's so much music put out, people cannot get through the layers. Some people call it the Matrix.

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