No account of American jazz in the '00s would be complete without a thorough look at the Chicago scene. The year 2009 was a good one, with strong recordings from Mike Reed, Josh Berman, Aram Shelton, Nicole Mitchell, Pluto Junkyard, Herculaneum and more. Kicking off 2010, cornetist Rob Mazurek
and drummer Chad Taylor
have reconvened as the Chicago Underground Duo to offer Boca Negra
, a followup to In Praise of Shadows (2006). This comes on the heels of two respective solo efforts: Mazurek's adventurous quintet album Sound Is
and Taylor's Circle Down
, a comparatively straightforward trio set with bassist Chris Lightcap
and pianist Angelica Sanchez
. Taylor may still be seen as a Chicagoan but he's currently a New Yorker and Circle Down
is the first release under his own name.
Like its predecessor, Boca Negra
finds Mazurek and Taylor wearing their multi-instrumentalist hats and tweaking their interplay with electronic enhancements, plotting out music of small gestures and bold, emphatic outbursts. Mazurek takes a break from busily fluttering cornet to lay the surprise of an ethereal flute passage on the opening "Green Ants." Taylor digs in with steady, entrancing tom-tom beats, but on the ambient piece "Left Hand of Darkness" he introduces processed mbira, one of the album's recurring textures. The instrument's metallic low tones on "Quantum Eye" recall the diddley bow of Cooper-Moore, Taylor's band mate in Digital Primitives. While some moments verge on noodling, there's a judicious balance of free acoustic blowing (parts of Ornette Coleman's "Broken Shadows"), calming aural expanses (the lyrical "Hermeto"), dub and electronica references ("Spy on the Floor," "Vergence") and surging asymmetric rhythm ("Confliction" sounds like something Vijay Iyer might have concocted). Sound design is as central here as the playing itself, so one must credit producer Matthew Lux, who happens to play electric bass on Sound Is
A bit too long at 71-plus minutes, Sound Is
has a certain kinship with Boca Negra
in terms of sonic outline. Drummer John Herndon
of Tortoise is loose yet focused, sounding not worlds away from Chad Taylor; he's also credited on an obscure electronic instrument called the tenori-on. Vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz
gives the music a legato fullness, while Lux, a partner in Mazurek's Exploding Star Orchestra, shares low-end duties with acoustic bassist Josh Abrams
(and improvises in a flowing, Phil Lesh-like mold on "The Lightning Field"). Subtleties abound: vamping piano chords and jangling percussion on "The Star Splitter"; sonorous bowed-vibes drones on "Microraptagonafly"; folkish melodic simplicity on "Cinnamon Tree"; echoes of Joe Zawinul's "Directions" on "The Dream Rocker" and a stark rhythmic transition during "The Hill," one of the most jazz-oriented features for Mazurek's horn. The ideas are ear-catching, with mostly direct segues between tracks, but a bit of ruthless editing would have helped.
Taylor's Circle Down
is a simpler propositionpiano trio all the way, with Sanchez and Lightcapand it takes a few listens for the elusive beauty and structural integrity of the 10 tracks to sink in. Taylor and Sanchez (not to mention Matthew Lux) are both involved in the pop act Iron & Wine and that shared experience seems to filter through on pared-down melodic themes like Sanchez' "Rock" and Lightcap's "Traipse." Interestingly, the album is split in two: Sanchez' and Lightcap's charts are sequenced first while Taylor's compositions fill the second half. Lightcap's "Specifica" and Sanchez' "No Brainer" spark the most heated interplay, yielding to the grace of Taylor's ballads "Opal" and "Miriam," the broken-up misterioso figures of "Level," the quasi-calypso jaunt of "Pablo" and the turbulent bounce of the closing "Pascal." It could be that the Circle Down
trio is a cousin to Sticks & Stones, Taylor's co-led unit with Matana Roberts and Josh Abrams, although Sanchez gives this new material a broader harmonic signaturemeticulously voiced, precise yet impulsive.
Tracks and Personnel Boca Negra
Tracks: Green Ants; Left Hand Of Darkness; Broken Shadows; Quantum Eye; Confliction; Hermeto; Spy On The Floor; Laughing With The Sun; Roots And Shooting Stars; Vergence.
Personnel: Rob Mazurek: cornet; Chad Taylor: drums. Sound Is
Tracks: As if an Angel Fell from the Sky; The Earthquake Tree; Dragon Kites; The Star Splitter; The Hill; Le Baiser (The Kiss); The Lightning Field; Cinnamon Tree; The Dream Rocker; Beauty Wolf; Microraptagonafly; Aphrodite Rising; The Field; Nora Grace.
Personnel: Rob Mazurek: cornet, synthesiser, piano; Jason Adasiewicz: vibes; Josh Abrams: bass, piano; Matthew Lux: bass guitar; John Herndon: drums, percussion, tenori-on. Circle Down
Tracks: Box Step; Specifica; Rock; Traipse; No Brainer; Opal; Level; Miriam; Pablo; Pascal.
Personnel: Chad Taylor: drums; Angelica Sanchez: piano; Chris Lightcap: bass.