In Praise of Shadows
, the fourth release by the Chicago Underground Duo, focuses on continuing experiments in sense confusion within a single relationship: music and light. As with previous albums, cornetist Rob Mazurek and drummer Chad Taylor spend considerable time on piano and vibes respectively, creating a surprisingly full sound that is matched by a wide stylistic palette, from free bop to minimalism, in settings both austere and exotic.
Their interest in the visual power of music, most obvious in the name of their second album, Synesthesia, returns to the forefront here. Though this is the first CUD recording that does not mention color in any track title, Shadows explores a narrower subjectmusical light and darkfrom start to end.
This programmatic thread might be overstated if it didn't connect the pieces so well. The bright opener, "Falling Awake, lit by Taylor's simultaneous stroll on vibes and swelling of cymbals, creates an effect of complete darkness when the next section, "In Praise of Darkness, begins. How does night sound to the CUD? Stark and suggestive. Taylor's meter-less drum rolls describe scurrying just out of sight as Mazurek feels his way through a sparse set of dissonant chords on the piano. Muted melodies from the cornet calm the atmosphere before returning to night's uncertainty with sputtering runs as unpredictable as a loosed balloon.
"The Glass House, Taylor's overdubbed mbira and vibes duet, pours out ringing tones whose subtle rhythmic ripplings suggest the play of light on water more than on glass. But the title may also serve as an answer to critics of the duo's experiments in minimalism; this track is not as repetitive as it first seems. The fifth section, "Pangea [sic], has no obvious connection to light or dark, though the scorching electronic effects introduced here glow and flash like lightning. It is inevitable that the Miles Davis electric album of the same name will come to mind, but a more informative comparison is Davis' Aura (Columbia, 1985), in which each section of Palle Mikkelborg's extended composition is meant to represent a different color.
The biggest weakness of Aura was the occasional introduction of rock and reggae rhythms which stimulate the tactile (but not the visual) sense. (It doesn't help that the full-color synesthesia of Mikkelborg is so rare and idiosyncratic that no two people exactly share it.) On Shadows, Taylor's occasional propulsive beats, as on "Funeral of Dreams, push the listener toward sensations of movement, straining the aesthetic whole, but his light touch and frequent rhythmic shifts minimize these intrusions.
In Praise of Shadows is an advance both musically and conceptually for the Chicago Underground Duo. Their sheer range of sounds has always been impressive, and without sacrificing stylistic breadth, they have created an album of impressive coherence.
Personnel: Rob Mazurek: cornet, organ, celeste, piano, prepared piano, harpsichord, noise box,
moogerfooger analog delay, ring modulator; Chad Taylor: drums, cymbals, mbira, gongs,
percussion, vibraphone, prepared vibraphone.