In jazz, New York is the gold standard—the city where nearly every serious jazz musician goes and the center of the jazz world since at least the early 1940s.
But there’s a compelling argument that no city has fueled the music’s post-Coltrane life like Chicago. Home to the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music (AACM) and therefore to so many of the crucial bands in recent jazz history—such as the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Ken Vandermark’s various bands—Chicago has nurtured freely improvised jazz in a way that no other American city has dared.
The Chicago Underground Collective—held down for a dozen years by leader Rob Mazurek on cornet and Chad Taylor on drums with various other players coming in and out (particularly Jeff Parker from Tortoise on guitar)—plays music that deserves to be heard more broadly. They can be fairly traditional post-bop players at times, with cornet accompanied by swinging acoustic bass and drums. But they also can play with complete freedom as “out” improvisers of the first order. Then, not to seem too old or stuck in the mud, they have also experimented broadly with “post-rock” playing, electronics, and improvising that seems liberated from the jazz tradition. In the end, it seems clear, it is this impulse to go past jazz or to run away from any purity of jazz that has made the group so vital a contributor to the advancement of the beautiful jazz tradition.
This DVD, Chronicle, (matched by an accompanying CD of just the music) is an argument for the relevance and reach of the Chicago Underground Trio. Filmed and recorded live at Chicago’s German Cultural Center on July 31, 2006, this document catches a new incarnation of the band playing a fully improvised program. In addition to Mazurek and Taylor, the band here includes bassist Jason Ajemian—a young newcomer who starts things off with an aggressive, percussive solo, laced with double-stop pluckings and rich tone for almost six minutes. The long-form composition is broken into six sections, each of which does have a distinct character.
After the bass intro (“Initiation”), Taylor enters skipping and tripping over his snare and cymbals like a cut-loose Billy Higgins (“Resistance”). Ajemian continues, strumming and walking, until Mazurek enters, smearing across registers like a deeper-toned Don Cherry with a mission. This much of the program can be heard as fairly conventional free jazz circa 1965—a swinging free groove without a chording instrument and a liberated soloist riding the surface. But that changes soon enough.
Amidst the second track, Taylor shifts to vibes, then Mazurek works a hand drum, and the music gradually simmers into a contemplative shine of vibes, bass harmonics and then electronics (“Power”). With Mazurek shifting to an electric celeste, for example, the vibraharp tones are shifted over, allowing Taylor to color it all on cymbals—a strategy that allows the trio to cleverly sound like more than just three musicians. This section is consistently beautiful—moving from a textural drum solo into a parade groove underpinned by funky bass, which Manzurek tops with Harmon-muted cornet that is less Miles-ian than it is puckish and playful. A play-by-play of this remarkable (and wholly improvised) music should be unnecessary—a bass solo that Paul Chambers would dig, open horn against ambling acoustic backing, a groove for kalimba and celeste that brings to mind Steve Reich or Tortoise as much as any jazz, and eventually a slowly rising wash of electronics that mutates the music into the realm of the post-jazz, post-rock, post-whatever-style-you-like.
It’s worth going back to Tortoise, with whom the Trio has played, for comparison. Much of this recording pushes consciously away from the idiom of jazz improvising—away from blues-based swing or free time—and into a different kind of art-music tradition (or maybe one still in the making). This is not hip-hop influenced jazz but, rather, a kind of collectively improvised sound web that trades in free polyrhythm. It can groove in places, but it is not about the groove. Like so much of Tortoise’s music, it works in part because it avoids worn licks of jazz, pop, and soul music in favor of textures newly constructed. The music resists what you love so you can love it fresh.
The concert film was directed by Raymond Salvatore Harmon. Mr. Harmon’s approach is highly stylized, with every bit of footage being digitally manipulated by shapes, colors, and effects that distort the image and often make it more beautiful. Thus, during the most electronic passages, Harmon distorts the action with neon colors that fly across the screen like an acid trip. In other places, he uses split screen effects as well as distortion. The screen is almost always overlain with shifting, pulsing, geometric figures. At almost 90 minutes, however, this barrage of impression-a-delic visual mannerism gets old fast. Not to mention that The Chicago Underground Trio puts on a visually interesting show—playing such a variety of instruments at different times—that many viewers will simply wish they could see more clearly. There are many times during Chronicle when you wonder—what is that guy playing? Often, you will not be able to decipher it.
The music presented here is daring, compelling, occasionally vexing, but always alive with interest. The DVD that frames the music flickers across the eyes but probably adds nothing to what was simply a terrific music performance. But since Delmark also sells the CD version, the choice is yours.