Boca Negra, the fifth release by the avant-garde jazz combo Chicago Underground Duo, begins with a shofar-like invocation by cornet player Rob Mazurek. He beckons the listener like a man speaking in tongues to some kind of holy holy lama lama quasi-spiritual experience. Chad Taylor joins in on drums, changing tempos and timbres, to invite the body to dance along. The title of the track is “Green Ants”. This species of insects is known for its collective behavior and inherited intelligence in building nests and ridding its environment of natural enemies. The song extracts a divine feeling of fellowship from the listener that seems to be part of our natural genetic programming.
The music’s direct call to the listener’s utopian unconscious can also be found on the track “Left Hand of Darkness”, which is named after a Ursula K. LeGuin science fiction novel about the League of All Worlds. This tune is full of squiggles and strange electronic noises. Taylor uses the vibraphone as a percussion instrument even as he pounds the drums, although he is always careful about hitting the right notes. There is a lot of empty gaps between the sounds that connote the outer space scenario of the title, in addition to something that might be called happy noises—rhythmic bleeps that just resonate and echo throughout the song. The effect is magical.
The album was recorded at Rocha Studios in Sao Paulo, Brazil and several songs have a tropical feel, especially “Hermato”, a song presumably in tribute to the great Brazilian composer Hermeto Pascoal. Pascoal was known for using unconventional objects as musical instruments, items such as teapots and toys in addition to babbling brooks and singing into a cup while one’s mouth was half-filled with water. The Chicago Underground Duo’s tune seems to utilize the wind and simple phrases on the keyboard looped and repeated to create an atmosphere of childlike joy and innocence.
Yet these descriptions of the album overlook the fact of Mazurek and Taylor’s virtuosity. The compositions have a structure, and the players improvise. Mazurek can create otherworldly sonics one minute, and then blow a traditional jazz line on his horn. Taylor can pound like a monster for long stretches, and then just keep a gentle back beat. Their performances all depends on the moods and merits of the song.
For example, on the one cover, Ornette Coleman’s “Broken Shadow”, the duo remain in tight sync with each other (what Joe Zawinul called the “nobody solos, everybody solos” contradiction found at the heart of Coleman’s compositions). Taylor keeps the pulse. Mazurek explores various riffs and melodies. The pace and tension builds but never climaxes, just sort of ebbs and flows, as the players get more and more intense over the 7-plus minute piece. When the music starts to fade, it’s like a ghost has left the room. Something is missing, but you were never quite sure what exactly was there in the first place.
The Chicago Underground Duo are on Thrill Jockey, a label known for eccentric rock bands like Tortoise, The Fiery Furnaces, and Bobby Conn, more than jazz. Some purists may wonder if this extraordinary music is really jazz, but at its weird and wonderful heart, Boca Negra belongs to the tradition of Sun Ra, Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew and other fine jazz works from that weird and wonderful tradition.