Chicago Underground Duo: In Praise of Shadows

[6 March 2006]

By Scott Hreha

The accuracy of the Chicago Underground Duo’s moniker may be questionable at best these days, what with cornetist and electronics artist Rob Mazurek now residing in Brazil and percussionist Chad Taylor based in New York City, but the group’s hybrid of jazz instrumentation and compositional tenets with post-rock production techniques still resonates with a distinctly Chicagoan state of mind.  It’s actually become something of an institution, spawning a trio, a quartet, and an orchestra over the past eight or so years, even as its founding members have moved on to more populous and exotic locales.  But just as it’s in even the most prodigal of sons’ best interest to occasionally check in with the folks, Mazurek and Taylor continue to reconvene under the auspices of their geographical roots as they simultaneously extend the scope of their influence and collaborations.

In Praise of Shadows is in many ways the completion of a circle begun with the Duo’s 1998 debut Twelve Degrees of Freedom, as several pieces revisit the sparse moods and textures of that record’s mostly live improvisations, only filtered through the advancements in technology and individual chops they’ve developed in the subsequent years.  Lengthier pieces, like the 12-minute title track, convey a self-contained contrast in moods, spending two initial minutes with Mazurek’s impressionistic piano plinkings until he finally introduces the thread of an arpeggiated motif; then halfway through Taylor moves into a cyclical drum pattern while Mazurek contributes smears of muted cornet.

Smearing is an apt description for much of what Mazurek does on the trumpet’s slightly stunted cousin, especially in this Duo context.  Mazurek also works as a painter whose Rothko-inspired oils have graced several Chicago Underground album covers and his musical improvisations often take a painterly approach, as on the aforementioned title track or on top of Taylor’s tribal pulse on “Cities Without Citadels”.  Similarly, he remains unafraid of space in either his composed or improvised material; one gets the impression that even seemingly random note choices and placements are made with great precision and deliberation, often allowing the listener plenty of room to digest the overall contours of the music, as opposed to alienating him or her with a sonic barrage.

For his part, Taylor is quickly becoming one of New York’s most ubiquitous presences behind the kit, working with players like Jemeel Moondoc, Cooper-Moore (as part of the irrepressibly brilliant Triptych Myth), and fellow Chicago expatriate Matana Roberts (in the cooperative trio Sticks and Stones).  “The Glass House” is a feature for his myriad talents, which include the oft-heralded ability to play the drum kit and vibraphone at the same time; a nine-minute mini-orchestra of bells, vibraphone, and thumb piano, it applies African rhythm and instrumentation to a minimalist lull reminiscent of Steve Reich’s compositional theories for percussion, without ever sacrificing feeling for concept.  Elsewhere, he contributes skittering drum-and-cymbal counterpoint to Mazurek’s long organ drones on “Pangea” and sets a percussive clatter in place to help stately cornet melodies gradually decay into modulated echoes on “Funeral of Dreams”.

In fact, the disc’s lone misstep occurs at the very end with “The Light in Between”, which makes for a disappointing conclusion in its revisiting of a cut-and-paste electronic splicing technique too similar to pieces on previous Duo records.  But even if it’s not as satisfying a start-to-finish listening experience as 2003’s Chicago Underground Trio release Slon, it’s still Mazurek and Taylor’s strongest statement to date in the Duo configuration—which is evolving more and more into a futuristic, technology-enhanced extension of Don Cherry’s globally aware jazz of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/chicago_underground_trio_in_praise_of_shadows/