Chicago Underground Trio


by John Kenyon


If this disc is any indication, the “trio” part of this band’s name will be short-lived.

With the addition of guitarist Jeff Parker, the group has grown to four members, and, more importantly, has expanded its sonic palette considerably. While the core trio—Rob Mazurek on cornet, Chad Taylor on drums and Noel Kupersmith on bass—are no slouches, Parker dominates much of this session and makes a strong argument for changing the name to the Chicago Underground Quartet.

The Chicago Underground tag has been applied to several configurations, all centered on Mazurek. And while this is the first Trio date with Parker, members of this group have played together in one form or another in the Chicago Underground Orchestra, Isotope 217, and select Tortoise tracks. With Flamethrower, the perfect combination of these talents may have been realized. The album is a dense and richly textured blast of post-bop, free jazz and fusion that is firmly grounded in the past and searchingly headed to the future all at once.

Even without Parker, this band did not lack for space-filling sounds. The lineup of cornet, bass and drums is augmented throughout with electronics, offering plenty of sonic paint to cover any canvas. But with Parker, the core trio is able to scale things back a bit, to pick their moments. Mazurek, in particular, can lay back and be selective in his playing. Where he once was expected to carry the songs melodic and harmonic possibilities on his shoulders, Parker now can do some of that heavy lifting. That lets Mazurek add texture and expand the base of a particular track.

They set the pace early with the opener “Quail”. Kupersmith drops a syncopated bass line just before Taylor lays into the cymbals to set the beat. Parker comes in a few bars later with a pensive guitar line that could be anyone from John Scofield to Grant Green. As the song progresses, the three players’ lines become increasingly chaotic and erratic, building to a cacophony of sound before breaking down to that base groove. Though Mazurek wrote the tune, his cornet never makes an appearance.

He first rears his horn on “Warm Marsh”, an absolutely swinging dialogue between Mazurek and Parker. It follows the utterly abstract “Fahrenheit 451” and precedes the more experimental sounds of “Antiquity”, as good an example as any of how varied a collection this is. Drop the laser onto any track, and you’re as likely to get a free-jazz freakfest as you are a laid-back bop tune. That it all seems to work, and fit, is testament to the talents and collaborative skills of the players.

Mazurek shows his chops on “Arcweld”, a track he performs with at least three over-dubbed horn parts, creating a three-way conversation with himself. On other tunes his solos are incendiary, pushing at the confines of the song’s structure to the point of breaking, but he never loses the plot and is always able to rein things in and restore a sense of order.

But Parker rivals, if not exceeds his band mate. His rhythm playing is tasteful and nuanced, and his solos are clean and adventurous. Front to back, he dominates the disc.

Yet this is clearly a group outing. While Taylor and Kupersmith are cast in the usual rhythm section slot on most tunes, they provide ample support for the soloists, and rise to the fore often enough to show off their own chops in abundance. The four musicians benefit from all that time playing together in other groups, and the give and take they exhibit here is breathtaking at times, their musical cohesion a thing of beauty amid the chaos of their performance.

Here’s hoping these four musicians—whatever they decide to call themselves—continue to mine this rich musical territory.

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