The Chicago Underground is a shape-shifting collective whose members play in various size ensembles. At the core of the group is the Duo, comprised of percussionist Chad Taylor and cornetist/electronics man Rob Mazurek. Both of these unique musicians have spent a lot of time on the Chicago music scene. Taylor spent time in the first half of the '90s in New York working with the likes of Leon Parker and Junior Mance. Since returning to Chicago to work on developing the Chicago Underground, he has played with some of Chicago's most innovative jazz musicians, including Fred Anderson and Art Ensemble of Chicago bassist Malichi Favors. Mazurek has also worked with a wide variety of musicians in the windy city, including Loren Mazzacane Conners and Fred Hopkins.
Perhaps the first and most obvious comparison one could make is that between the Underground Duo and the celebrated Art Ensemble of Chicago. Underground Duo is a bit more abstract and less overtly political in their approach, but the musical approach is just as wide open and offers an update on the trademark AACM sound. The music on Axis and Alignment is seemingly divided into two suites.
The first opens with "Micro Exit", which primarily features Taylor's vibraphone setting the mood, with Mazurek providing a few phrases on cornet but otherwise remaining in the background. That changes with "Lifelines", which features full-fledged percussion and an almost boppish theme presented by Mazurek. It's easy to hear the influence of Lee Morgan and Clifford Brown in Mazurek's strong tone and rhythmic attack on the solo segments of this track. In fact, Mazurek gives the impression, throughout this recording, that he's absorbed the important features of nearly every great jazz trumpet player and thoroughly digested them. This should not be taken to mean that his sound is merely a jumble of influences, however. On the contrary, while he has assimilated the lessons of his influences, he never slips into outright imitation and offers a sound and style that is at once vaguely familiar and totally fresh. The swing of "Lifelines" gives way to a frantic percussion attack on "Particle and Transfiguration", with Mazurek outlining a distinctly Spanish mode throughout this brief piece which seems designed to announce something. Indeed, it works up to a boiling point with serious delay effects employed on the explosive percussion, finally fading and making way for "Exponent Red", a track that seems to explore the same organic bass n' drum territory that Erik Truffaz has been mining for the last few years. One difference is that Mazurek doesn't merely float lyrically above the rhythm. Instead, he gets in there and throws off some improvisations that are highly rhythmic in nature, winding around the electronic bass and sputtering percussion. "Average Assumptions and Misunderstandings" is a brief dialogue between vibraphone and piano that certainly recalls much of the avant-garde work of the late '60s and early '70s. This first suite concludes with "Lem", a number featuring a haze of vibraphone drone against which Mazurek posits some Don Cherry-like runs.
The second suite kicks off with "Two Concepts for the Storage of Light", which again announces itself rather quietly before Taylor explodes into a frenzy of percussion against which Mazurek plays a most lyrical and beautiful melody. Near the track's six minute mark the percussion works into a driving 6/8 rhythm that pushes the cornet solo to new heights of expressiveness and energy. Somewhere around this point I realized that the whole album has an organic flow that really can't be described -- you have to let these sounds wash over you a few times in a non-judgmental way before you can really feel in synch with the ebb and flow of the music presented here. "Memoirs of a Space Traveler" is a free improvisation that makes perfect sense after the energy worked up in the previous track, and when that gives way to the robotic bottles and cans-sounding percussion and modal folk melody of "Rotation", the considerable tension built since the start of this second block of music is relieved. The simple statement of "Rotation" is followed by "Access and Enlightenment", which is a polyrhythmic celebration that conjures up images of a line of dancers merrily winding their way through the streets, pulling everyone in their path into the carnival. Taylor keeps pushing forward and when you realize the song is winding down you wish it would keep going, such is the exuberant mood created. The album concludes with "Noon", which is the first time the group really puts the electronic sounds out front, creating a space-age drone backed by some post-bop drumming and Mazurek's muted noodling a la Miles Davis. I was impressed by the fact that although the group sprinkles some electronics throughout the album, you are never overwhelmed, always getting the feeling that you are hearing an organic sound created by two musicians who are constantly listening to each other and responding rather than something that is programmed and sterile.
Axis and Alignment is sometimes joyous, sometimes messy and loud, sometimes subdued, but never dull or clichéd. Just like good music should be.