Chicago Underground Duo: Age of Energy

[14 May 2012]

By John Garratt

PopMatters Associate Music Editor

Did you know that Rob Mazurek and Chad Talyor have been inflating and deflating the Chicago Underground balloon for 15 years now? It’s honestly hard to keep track of. Sometimes they were a duo. Other times they were a trio. Sometimes that trio would have a fourth member but they wouldn’t get around to calling themselves a quartet until a few albums later. Then at one point Mazurek and Taylor said “screw it, we’re an orchestra” and made an album under that moniker. Then they were back to being a duo. Having such a liberal revolving door for musicians who were pretty “out there” to begin with doesn’t seem to have put cornetist Mazurek and percussionist Taylor’s collective creativity into any kind of danger. They’re still, as of now, making music that most of us haven’t heard before.

Both men have their names closely associated to jazz, but many a Marsalis/Crouch pundit would rather slam a grand piano lid on their heads before allowing this stuff to be called jazz. And for the sake of utility, I’ll agree. This isn’t really jazz. It’s way too electronically spacey to be jazz. But it’s too rooted in drums and horn to be called electronic or ambient. There’s too much edgy weirdness to call it new age. There are cyclical riffs that could hint at a pop/rock origin, but the resulting sound is closer to the avant-garde side of classical. Oh dear, what style do we call the Chicago Underground Duo?

Nothing. Or maybe just “music”. To these ears it sounds like two men equipped with a variety of instruments and electronics jamming these “songs” into creation, taking their sweet time doing so and not spending a split second worrying about what label people may or may not want to slap on it. In his review of the duo’s 2010 album Boca Negra, PopMatters writer Steve Horowitz confided that “when the music starts to fade, it’s like a ghost has left the room”. The same eerie spirit is at work here on Age of Energy, giving just hints of the key signatures, the meters, and the overall direction of the music. The word “unpredictable” gets chucked around a lot these days, but I have to be completely honest when I say that the opening number, “Winds and Sweeping Pines”, is one giant curve ball of a mammoth of a piece. It goes everywhere in its 20 minutes but never forecasts such a journey. No foreshadowing, no juxtaposition, just a brazen will to screw with the formula.

The first two tracks, which total to be half an hour, feature Mazurek and Taylor playing with their electronics a great deal. And as strange a mood as the first song may set, what comes next is more stubbornly subdued. Rob Mazurek blows his horn and sings (?) through a tremolo effect and it sounds more like the Doves’ first album than anything from the windy city’s jazz scene. After 11 minutes, that ghost leaves with a heavy impression.

The final two tracks of Age of Energy, though shorter, have more surprises stored in their sleeves. The inspiration for “Castle in your Heart” comes from Zimbabwe and features no electronics. It’s just Taylor on mbira and various percussion and Mazurek on cornet though his contribution to the song feels less necessary than what Taylor is doing. The title track comes last, with a backbone that the press release describes as alternating “between 21/8 and a 12/8 rhythmic cycle over a dissonant pedal point”. Yeah. Chad Taylor rules the roost for almost half the song before Mazurek’s horn steps in to try and sort out this thing they call a vamp. Actually, who’s to say that he’s trying to sort anything out? Is Taylor playing these patterns perfectly or did they want a clustermess? Are we listening to perfection or a series of train wrecks that hang in perfect balance?

That’s the Age of Energy for you.

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