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Interviews

Chicago Underground Duo: Two Voices, One Sound

By Published: April 3, 2006

With this new record, instead of pushing the technological aspects of trying to push out, we were trying to push out away from the actual physicality of playing--maybe trying, without sounding pretentious, to push out into another zone of consciousness —Rob Mazurek

Percussionist Chad Taylor and cornet player Rob Mazurek are the Chicago Underground Duo. Since the Chicago Underground collective expands or contracts with each project, they're also two-thirds of the Chicago Underground Trio and half of the Chicago Underground Quartet. Born in the 1990s out of the fertile Chicago improv scene, the group has, in its various permutations, produced a consistently excellent body of recorded music that mixes large amounts of improvisation with electronica, sampling, and a vast assortment of world music influences that are always organically absorbed—never self-consciously imitated.

Of all the versions of the Underground, the Duo has done the most live performing and recording, and their new Thrill Jockey CD, In Praise of Shadows, may be their best yet. It's also utterly unique—of all the recordings made in the last, say, ten years, it bears a resemblance only to other Chicago Underground Duo releases, and in that respect, seems more simultaneously raw and distilled than any of Taylor's and Mazurek's previous efforts.

As a native Chicagoan, surely I was the perfect person to interview the Chicago Underground Duo; what could be easier than meeting Taylor and Mazurek for a collective conversation? But nowadays, Taylor lives in New York City and Mazurek's home is in Manaus, Brazil. Therefore the interview you're about to read is a composite of two separate phone interviews—the two were separated by time and distance. Therefore, whether Mazurek and Taylor agree with each other or disagree, they can't hear what the other one is saying.

All About Jazz: Okay, Chad's in New York and Rob's now in Brazil. In terms of the Chicago Underground Duo, how has this affected how you work together?

Chad Taylor: It's had a really big effect on us because back when we first started, we spent a lot of time playing together and a lot of the tunes that we do came out of us just constantly performing. Now we still play a lot together, but most of the playing we do is actually performances. So we don't get a chance to just work stuff out the way we used to. So because of that, we've had to just rely on talking a lot about different things—in person and through email. Sometimes we send each other different tracks through the internet.

Rob Mazurek: Actually, it hasn't changed so much because Chad moved to New York a while back, so we were already dealing with our ideas from Chicago to New York. Being in Brazil, of course, is about 4000 miles further, but it's the same type of dynamic. Maybe we play a little bit less in the States, but that's about the only thing that's changed, really—well, besides being in a completely other country and another cultural situation that brings different ideas to the table when we do get together. And, of course Chad's experiences in New York.

AAJ: Okay, the new Chicago Underground Duo CD is In Praise of Shadows. This is the first Chicago Underground record since the 2004 CD Slon and it's the first Duo CD since Axis and Alignment from 2002. The Duo configuration brings it down to the two principal players. When you get ready to do a new record, what motivates your choices? For example, what made you do a Duo record now?

CT: One thing was just that it was so long since we recorded the last record, Axis and Alignment, that just for practical reasons we thought that we needed to do a record so that we could continue to play and work—just to keep the momentum going. But also musically, we really wanted to do something different; in order for the Duo to even exist, we had to do something different. We really felt that we'd had some success with the last couple of records, but we were getting bored with that repertoire, bored with just playing the same stuff.

RM: Usually it's always based on material or ideas—if someone has an idea to do it as a trio, or to add a bassist or any other instrument, and we pursue those ideas. A lot of the times, it happens with the Duo—I guess this is our fourth record, which is more of an output than any of the groups, probably because we've played and toured as a duo at least three times as much as the other groups.

For a stretch of time, the Duo were constantly touring. In 2000, 2001, 2002, we were doing maybe a hundred gigs or so a year. Which enabled us in that time, and in the previous time when we both lived in Chicago together, to really understand how each of us approached music at that specific time. Something like 50% of all our live shows is improvised, and through those improvisations we'll probably come up with lots of ideas for later on, for the next record. And if we come up with a song through our improvisations that we need a bassist or a guitarist on, then we expand.

But so far it's been kind of the opposite: instead of expanding, we really brought it down to the two people in what we can offer—just a sound and everything that goes along with sound.

AAJ: Before I mention a single piece from the new album, I want to say that this is one of the albumy-est albums I've heard in a long time; I really hear it as one continuous musical experience—a journey of sorts into some deep area and maybe a reemergence back out. Did you conceive this as a single body of work?

CT: Yeah, that's the way we really thought about it—like a collage. It's this single piece of all these different elements. Originally we were actually going to have one track, and that was going to be forty minutes long. We decided it'd be better to break it up a little bit and have the different tracks. It really is a record that we would like people just to listen to from the beginning to the end rather than listen to individual tracks, because that's the way we sort of put it together.

RM: Actually, I think almost all our records—for me, almost all the Duo records—have been conceived as a whole, as parts of a whole. I don't know who these people are, but it seems like critics criticize us for the fact that perhaps on a given track, there isn't enough development in something, whether it's a minimalist piece or some kind of improvisation or even written pieces. For me, the development is the entire record.

So yeah, I think it's consciously thought of on all four of the records. Certainly on this one; maybe this one even more. When we started the recording of this record, we had quite a few songs that we had played for two years live that we had intentions of recording. It turns out we didn't use any of that material at all. We ended up improvising and coming up with brand-new ideas and that's how the record came to be. But it was certainly meant to be one continuous flow.

AAJ: This record really feels live to me. I don't hear a lot of overdubbing and suspect a lot of it was done in real time, just the two of you playing. Is this true?

RM: Yes. I think almost all the tunes were not overdubbed—I think on one of the songs I added one pretty subtle cornet thing with ring modulator. But everything else, yeah, like the second cut, the long title track, is actually one continuous improvisation. And most of them were first takes. Chad plays vibes and drum set together; even on "In Praise of Shadows, there were no overdubs. I was playing keyboard stuff—harpsichord, celeste and piano at the same time, and I had my trumpet there too, so that's why you don't hear those instruments when I'm playing the cornet. I think 90% of it was no overdubs and over half must be one-takes.

I mean, to me that means nothing. People seem to enjoy knowing those things. "Oh, it's one take. That's amazing. I was listening to that trumpet player, Arve Henriksen. He did a solo trumpet record based on Japanese flower gardens. But it seemed like they kind of went out of their way to say that there were no overdubs on it. And I think Chad is pretty proud of that too. Maybe it's a matter of information because a lot of people think he overdubs stuff—the vibes lines—but he doesn't.

But it doesn't matter to me if it's one take or fifty takes or if it's completely chopped up. To me, it's the end result. The reason why it gets archived on some kind of thing you can hear back is because it sounds the way we want it to sound.

AAJ: I don't think this is the jazziest record, whatever that means these days, but I like how it gives this feeling that the two of you are just making music without worrying about what kind of music it is. I hear African and so-called world music influences, but I never get the impression you're thinking about that beforehand.

CT: Yeah, well, that's correct. I think what we were thinking about was just the sound of the different elements of the record. It's a lot of different-sounding things. We were thinking about that more than, say, "we're going to go from this style to this style. We just wanted a lot of different sounds—and for it to feel organic too. The one thing that was sort of challenging with this record is that the compositions were not dealing with harmony or melody. The last several records we did had some really strong melodies, but with this record, it's just these little pieces and they're mostly dealing with sound, rhythm, color and texture. Just the bare elements, so it was challenging to put that together.

RM: The only thing that happens is, of course, that when we step into the studio we bring our own experiences in there. I think Chad happened to be checking out quite a bit of mbira music of, I think, northwest Africa, before we went in, but it wasn't like, "oh, let's do a northwest African mbira piece. It was more like, "let's try this thing I've been working on.

So he was interested; he put the mbira on his floor tom, which gave this eerie kind of reverb and stuff to it, and then we did quite a bit of post-production, although the post-production is very subtle. It still sounds exactly like an mbira. But the point is we never do say, "oh, let's do a jazz tune, let's do something with an African rhythm.

For some reason, ever since the first record, 12 Degrees of Freedom, we've been able to just exist in a space musically—and not musically, at times—with the real freedom of just being able to make sounds. I don't even know if it's music sometimes; I use the word "sound a lot, because sometimes what people consider music, whether it's melody or rhythm or harmony or whatever—sometimes this music doesn't have any of that.

AAJ: You recorded this album pretty recently—just last August in Chicago. When you went into the studio, what did you have in terms of ideas and compositions?

RM: I think it's always nice not to have a notion of what you want to do in a way, but then what's your reason for recording? We don't make a record just to make a record. We go in when we think we have enough ideas in order to make something that's valid to us that we want to project for other people.

But I think as we got closer to the actual recording session, we discovered that we were both thinking more in line to what we had done on the first record, on 12 Degrees of Freedom—so we kind of pursued that angle on the actual recording rather than what we did on Axis & Alignment, where we started to bring in more and more technological things. I'd been doing some programming on the computer and working with electronics, so I'd been pushing in that direction.

You know, if we had recorded 12 Degrees of Freedom this last year, it would have sounded completely different than the original recording—but not so different. I think we were able to step out of the shell a little more easily now. With 12 Degrees of Freedom, you're inside the body, inside the shell. With this new record, instead of pushing the technological aspects of trying to push out, we were trying to push out away from the actual physicality of playing—maybe trying, without sounding pretentious, to push out into another zone of consciousness. Just two humans hitting and playing things, but expressing things in a certain way to where a certain light maybe pushes out through the bodies, creating one light.

I don't mean that to sound like we're so great; it's just that's my impression of it. It doesn't have to do with being good or not. That's how it felt. The recording session felt like that.

AAJ: Well, that sounds like a good feeling.

RM: Yeah. That track "In Praise of Shadows, all ten minutes or so, was just magic, and I remember that actually we discarded that in our original plans for the record. But because of circumstances, we were able to really think about the stuff for a few months before we decided what to use, and all of a sudden that one came back like a steamroller.

CT: We had a lot of ideas. And actually, a lot of the time we spent [laughing] was just getting rid of ideas! Because we waited so long—I forget how many years it'd been since the last one, but we had all sorts of ideas. And a lot of it was just trial and error; we'd go through different things that we had and some of them we recorded and some we didn't. And a lot of the stuff we recorded—after listening back to it we were just like, "no, this doesn't work for trying to put a cohesive tune together.

AAJ: Let's talk about individual pieces on the CD. The opening track is "Falling Away, which is really beautiful. Of everything on the record, it's the most traditional song, and it really feels like an opening prayer, an invocation for what follows before we're drawn into the deep interior. This is Chad on vibes and cymbals, percussion, and Rob on cornet. This is a composed piece?

CT: Yeah. It's a piece that I composed. It's only about two minutes long. I wrote a series of pieces like that and that one just turned out to be the best one, the one that we decided to use. I didn't have the melody written; I just had the chord voicings and the drum part and then Rob came up with the melody. We recorded it, it sounded good and we decided that that would be a good way to start the record.

RM: The vibes part that Chad's playing is an example of a new idea that he brought into the studio. I heard it as an impressionistic kind of trajectory that he was getting at—no melody, just that little vibes harmony line. That was also probably one or two takes, and we took the first take. I think that's what Chad's intention was—to sound like a kind of prayer or meditation. It's an opening proclamation, but it's calm, tranquil. The stuff I play on it is certainly melodic and it's an improvisation off of Chad's ideas.

AAJ: The next tune is the title track, "In Praise of Shadows. This, to me, is a pretty central piece on the CD. It follows its own improvised logic. It's a long piece and there's a real sense of ritual to it, of process.

RM: I really didn't think of that, but that sums it up really well. I think when we play in general, it's ritualistic; it's not in any way or form trying to pull attention to ourselves, if you know what I mean. Maybe it's what a ritual really is—it's a group feeling that you're trying to either project out or in. That tune certainly has those qualities.

I think we both have this spirituality about things—that being able to step back, like I say, from the actual ego of playing an instrument, whether you're virtuosic or not. I certainly don't think I am. I don't think Chad is either—except when he plays certain rhythms. Or maybe he is and maybe I am, I don't know. But I agree with what you said: it's extremely ritualistic in the most honest way. I hope that doesn't sound arrogant!

CT: We did a bunch of improvised pieces. We had, I think, three days of just recording. That particular piece was the first thing that we recorded that was improvised, and we sort of overlooked it: we originally weren't going to put it on the record. We came back and listened to it and it just sounded really organic and interesting to us, so we decided to put it on there. Rob is going through different instruments and I think I play drums on the whole thing.

AAJ: The next one is "The Glass House, which is currently my favorite on the album. This is Chad alone playing percussion, mbira and maybe treated vibes?

CT: I'm playing all the instruments. It's mbira, vibraphone and drums—but then we both did a lot of post-production on it, just tweaking different sounds, taking some sounds out. We made the bass drum an octave lower. And a lot was trial by error; a lot of stuff we did sounded terrible. We probably spent the most time on that piece, just to get it right.

Originally, Rob had a beat that he made from some kind of analog synthesizer—a drum machine. I heard the beat and I was hearing something on the mbira, a kind of melodic thing, and I started playing that, and that became the song. Then we took the beat completely out. Then I played some drums on it and that became the basic piece, and then we did a whole bunch of post-production stuff.

What we were thinking about was more Plux Quba [the 1988 recording by mysteriously obscure electronic artist Nuno Canavarro]. I don't know if you know that record, but I think it's this guy who was a Portuguese electronic musician. So that was the inspiration for that piece. Even though I'm playing an African instrument, the inspiration was this electronic composer. That's where I was coming from.

AAJ: "The Glass House —and "Pangea and "In Praise of Shadows as well, actually—put me in a place where I'm just in the music. I'm not thinking about what instruments are being played. It turns off my inner dialogue completely.

RM: Once again, that's exactly the idea of the thing, and I think there are so many people who don't understand that way of listening that it's really difficult to put out a record like this and have people really understand it. Because those tunes, and maybe even the other songs—a lot of the stuff on the records and especially this one—have that quality. You're not supposed to—well, you can do whatever you want, but to me, the point is not to be like, "oh, he's playing this certain riff that Don Cherry played, or comparing it to something. I'm trying to use a certain analogy.

I like to use light as an analogy a lot just because one of my heroes is [artist] James Turrell [whose work deals with light and space], so I've been thinking about light a lot [laughing]. But I'm thinking of the concept of when you turn on a light, or when you see light, you're not necessarily thinking of what light is, of what the particles are, how it travels. Some of these songs, even "The Glass House, even "Falling Away, even "Pangea —they really don't mean to have a beginning an an end. If you listen to the end of "Pangea, it cuts off abruptly and then you have the little cymbal touch and we're into a whole other world ["Funeral of Dreams ]. Or it could be the same world; you just step into another threshold or something. But it's not necessarily the ending. It just keeps going, it's like a wave.

AAJ: Like a piece of music where you happened to walk in at a certain point and out at another, but it's continuing eternally.

RM: Yeah, well, I'd love it if someone would be able to listen to that until well into the next piece—you're in the next piece but for some reason the power and maybe horror and enlightenment of the last sound keeps lingering somewhere just above your head or below the floor. When I say "enlightenment, I'm not saying that our music is enlightening. I'm just saying that a sound can be enlightening. Anything can be enlightening.

AAJ: "Cities Without Citadels is a shorter one with Rob getting down pretty mightily on cornet. Is this another improvised one?

CT: It's pretty much improvised. The rhythm I'm playing is a candomblé rhythm—it's a very specific rhythm used in candomblé or santeria. I remember telling Rob that we should try to do something for Lester Bowie, who's been a big influence on us both. We were really trying to do a little something to show that influence based on that rhythm. It's not like Rob's playing something rhythmically in with what I'm doing—it's the rhythm on its own and he's playing over it.

AAJ: "Pangea is a sort of duet between the two of you.

CT: Is that the long organ piece?

AAJ: Is it? I thought it was some sort of tonal electric noisebox—that's an organ?

CT: [Laughing] Yes, that's the organ.

AAJ: Is that the first time you've used an organ on your records?

CT: It is. But the ironic thing is that when we first started—before we even recorded—we used to do a lot of stuff with organ. So doing this with the organ sort of brought us back to what we used to do ten years ago. That was a lot of fun for us to do something like that and just keep it very raw-sounding. Then there's the hard edit that happens and it just goes into the other piece. [Laughing} I'm finally remembering the record.

AAJ: Well, it's not like you were supposed to play it as homework before I telephoned.

CT: I have a really hard time listening to records that I've done because I'm very self-critical. You can't help but analyze everything.

AAJ [to RM]: So you're playing organ on "Pangea.

RM: Yes, and that's pretty much as is. Well, there was some post-production; certainly we were messing with the sound and whatnot, but not so much. On "Pangea, I was on organ, the Hammond organ at [John McEntire's] Soma [Studios]. I set up a couple different pedals for it—some kind of very old tape reverb unit or something. We wanted to get a very specific sound on the thing. The idea was pretty spontaneous. I had been playing keyboard quite a bit for various reasons and organ always struck me as a sound that's the sound of a wave, a wave moving through the ocean—not a destructive wave like tidal waves or tsunamis. But a gentle wave is also a powerful wave.

So the idea is of taking something from basically nothing and then expanding, expanding, to get the massive sound which happens towards the end. Which, on some occasions, almost cancels itself out. It's really hard to get a massive sound like that what we were looking for. So it starts small and then I kept on adding chords and different layers of chords and different hand movements, but there was no overdubbing. We did it all in one take. The only thing we did was we cut it; we made that cut right before the ending in order to push it through that threshold.

But "Pangea is special. It reminds me of some stuff I did with my group Mandarin Movie; we did a record that came out last year [a self-titled CD on the Aesthetics label]. I did it with [Guitarist] Alan Licht and [trombonist] Steve Swell from New York and some players from Chicago. That group is completely about volume and frequency—full-frequency projection.

AAJ [To RM]: I didn't know that was an organ on "Pangea. I just thought it was some kind of tonal box or something until Chad told me otherwise.

RM: [Laughing] "Tonal box. Well, it kind of is that, because I actually put it through a box—a reverb box.

AAJ: Yeah, I conjured up some kind of device in my mind—a sort of invented, tonal analog box. Which, I suppose, is what an organ is.

RM: That is what an organ is, and we did take it to the next stop by using this old Echoplex and a ring modulator. Then, in post-production, I think me and John pushed it even a little further; I think we ended up using a little pass filter or something like that. But on the fly—there's nothing on it that's through it all the way.

Just like on "The Glass House, I think you can tell it's an mbira, but the sound was kind of meant to transcend the instrument a little bit. Instead of having someone say, "oh, this is a nice mbira song. we'd rather they think, "this is a nice wash of color. There are no drums on "The Glass House ; the bass drum that you're hearing is controlled by a drum machine that's controlled by a noise box. So you get those little squiggles that come through that song and it's part of this noise box that this guy in Sao Paulo gave to me. Really subtle.

So for "Pangea, we wanted to do a similar thing where you try to mix these tones in a certain way. Certainly, the end of the thing, when Chad is rolling on his cymbals and you have that last chord, I don't even know what that is [laughing]. You listen to that mix of sounds and it sends chills up my arms everytime I hear that part. Once again, I'm not bragging about my own playing, but what happened was special—I guess you could call it a "special frequency moment.

AAJ: So you can actually listen to and appreciate your own recorded music. That's pretty nice and not so common.

RM: I've always kept a kind of promise—my way of making sure that I can live with myself and be cool with what I've done—at least with the Chicago Underground. I made some records before then that I'm not super-happy with. But anyway, since that time, I've wanted to make things that I'd want to listen to in my own home. So I'm not one of these guys who make records, who make films, who make art, who can't even listen to or watch or look at their own stuff, ever. Then why did you make the thing? It's strange. But maybe I'm strange.

AAJ: "Funeral of a Dream really has that funeral-procession quality to it with that steady kick-drum and bluesy cornet.

CT: That piece was improvised. I got some gongs, some Chinese gongs, that I was working with. So we improvised the piece, and I'm keeping the steady pulse with the bass drum. Actually, I've been playing a lot with [multi-instrumentalist/composer] Cooper-Moore and part of how I was approaching that was dealing with some of the rhythmic things that he does—where he plays in time and out of time at the same time.

So that's what I was working with and [laughing] I'm not sure what Rob was thinking about. It sounds like there are some effects on that one, but if I remember correctly, that's what it is. We just played it. It has a very echoey sound, but that was just part of the room sound.

AAJ: Yeah, I thought I heard an electronic snare of some kind.

CT: It's funny—sometimes you can play acoustic sounds that will sound electronic and electronic sounds that sound like they're acoustic, and that's just one of those places where it sounds like there's some other thing going on, but it's just acoustic.

AAJ: The last song on the record is "The Light in Between, which has percussion, vibes, maybe piano and maybe celeste. Lots of instruments, actually, and a kind of mysterious goodbye to the album.

CT: That was a prepared piece that we did. I took the vibraphone and prepared it with different metal objects and paper and wood—I don't even remember what I did. Rob did the same thing with the piano and I think he was playing some kind of keyboard too.

AAJ: That's a beautiful piece. Any electronics in there? I hear a sort of whooshing panning going on.

CT: Yeah. There's some stuff we did with it in the post-production. Exactly what, I don't really know, but we were looking for this specific sound. So we prepared everything for that piece—with the vibraphone and the piano—played it, and then went back and worked on what we did. It's sort of a strange way of putting something together, but that's what happened.

We really consider that post-production stuff part of our sound—for the Duo. The other Underground stuff is different, but the Duo has always considered the studio as another instrument to use.

RM: We had long discussions about what should be the last song on the record. We had another song that was more songlike that I thought would be a better piece to end the record, just because I thought perhaps we had enough things that had the qualities of "In Praise of Shadows. But as I listened to "The Light In Between more and more, I said, "this piece sounds like a written piece to me. It doesn't even sound like an improvisation —which it was, and I think this one was also one take.

The only thing that was added was that swooshing stuff you hear. I was playing, I think, celeste and piano at the same time, and the bells you hear at the end. I can't remember if I play a little bit of harpsichord as well—maybe one little note. For the swooshy part, I took a really small gong and rubbed it on the strings while holding down certain notes on the piano. Just as it is, it sounds beautiful, just kind of a scraping sound that has some overtones and tonality to it, but in post-production I decided I wanted to put a little bit of a harmonizer on it to try to bring out the harmonics of the scratching. And we got this weird kind of slipping and sliding effect—you have to be subtle with this stuff. You can't force it at all or you look like an idiot. So we had to be very careful, but I think it's just enough to give that piece a little bit of a curvature, so you can't quite see around the corner of it.

AAJ: So there were some other pieces recorded but not used for In Praise of Shadows?

RM: Yeah, I think we had over two hours of stuff that was usable that we had to leave off. Well, we didn't have to—we could have made a two-CD release. In any case, I think we're more into a more precise projection of our ideas. The Delmark Underground Trio records [Possible Cube, 1999 and Flamethrower, 2000] are very long records, and I didn't mention those when I talked about our records that were kind of made as a whole—although, certainly, some parts of Possible Cube and Flamethrower were constructed that way.

And it's a perfectly valid way to make albums, and I love those records. I think they're what we wanted to do. But I was just thinking today that I might go back into the hour of material that we haven't used and redo some of that stuff for either some downloadable things on the Thrill Jockey website or maybe even an EP—but only if it's agreeable to me and Chad. We are extremely careful about how these projections happen, from the music to the artwork to the interviews.

AAJ [to CT]: Your drums sound a little different on this record. Now I know that you tuned it down an octave on one of the pieces, but did you use any different sorts of drum tunings on this record?

CT: I did. The first thing I told John [McEntire, who engineered the album] was that I wanted really low-sounding drums. I wanted everything to sound not like a drum set, but like drums—like you'd hear with a percussionists' ensemble, really low drums. So that was what I was going for with my sound, and I had a different setup for this record than I normally do.

AAJ: I think I could have identified the music on In Praise of Shadows as the Chicago Underground Duo if I heard it without anyone telling me who is was, so it can't be completely unlike anything you've ever done, and you say that in some ways it harkens back to your first Duo album. That said, I do feel that it's somehow different from, say, Axis & Alignment and Synesthesia. Do you see it as any kind of new direction?

RM: Yeah, I think so. I think it's a new kind of maturity, if I can say that. I think what's special about Chad's and my working situation is that he travels all over the world and so do I, and not necessarily together. He has projects that he does; I have projects that I do. We're interested in different things. And this all brings a lot of incredible things to the table when we get together.

When we got together to do this record, I had moved to Brazil—I had lived in Brasilia and was living here in Manaus. And just the greenness of being here, I think, just makes the light of the cornet shine a little differently. And the way Chad corresponds with all these great, great musicians in New York and he's playing more and more with people like Henry Grimes and Marc Ribot, Tom Abbs and that crew, Cooper-Moore and all that. It's an amazing thing, and really, really different circumstances from my being here in Manaus. Here, there's nothing in terms of the sounds I enjoy listening to, unless you count the fact that here I record electric eels, storm systems, insects and birds—all those sounds are amazing here.

So because of those experiences, and because of experiences we've already had, I think this record can be looked at as a fresh start. Of course, I guess we view each record as a start, never an end. And I'm sure there's some resemblance to Axis & Alignment, but probably in a very distant way. It's like time traveling or something—maybe Axis & Alignment was the year 2050 and this record is 100 BC or something. Maybe for the next record, we'll go back even further or it'll go to 3050. And I say that in all seriousness, not in a silly way.

AAJ: It's probably less than perfect to interview the two members of the group separately, but there is one advantage: I can ask each of you about the other player. So tell me what's interesting about your partner in the Duo—what you like about playing with him.

RM: Well, I consider Chad my spiritual brother. Even beyond blood. I think because of that feeling, we're able to do things that are sometimes kind of extraordinary, and I don't necessarily even mean the music—it could be a conversation or a look. Not to mention what, of course, everybody knows: he's an incredible drummer with an incredible subtlety to his playing and a great layering or rhythms that don't sound complex but are. And he has the aura about him, and the light within him, to not try too hard—not not try too hard to let people know what your intention is. It could mean playing fast, or even the way you walk or what you order for dinner.

That's what I find really excellent about him and that's why we continue this relationship even though we hardly see each other anymore—and we're not on the phone with each other every other day, either. I don't think I've talked to Chad in a month. But it doesn't matter, because, without sounding too stupid, our relationship transcends that.

CT: I think we ended up making a very good pair because Rob has no fear, which is something that I've always respected—but [laughing] can be very dangerous. He's always the one who will push things to the limit just to see what will happen, and I have, I think, a much more conservative approach. So together, we sort of balance one another out. He's an amazing musician to work with; he just has so many different ideas and he puts so much into every musical moment when he's performing, which is very special. The other thing is that he also really thinks about music as sound—I know he thinks about himself that way. That's quite unusual for musicians to have that approach.

AAJ: Let me ask about some of the other people who have played as members of the different Chicago Underground configurations. When you're the Trio, the additional member is Noel Kupersmith on bass and laptop. How's it a different group with him added?

CT: Well, it's different personalities—so it's completely different because we all have such strong personalities that if you throw one personality into the mix, it's a completely different band. That goes for the Quartet, too. Actually, Noel is no longer with the Underground. The new bassist for the trio is Jason Ajemian. He worked with [Ken] Vandermark; actually, he still might still be in some Vandermark band or other.

RM: And we did some shows as a quartet with Matthew Lux, an electric bass player who used to play in Isotope 217; we've done a lot of stuff together. We did some shows in Europe with that configuration, which was really great—really nice time.

AAJ: Well, then, what about [guitarist] Jeff Parker? Is he still technically a member of the Quartet?

CT: That's a very interesting question. I would hope so. You'd need to ask Jeff that. I'm actually working with him in a couple of weeks for the first tour under his name—I think it's a mostly-European tour—and we're doing a lot of his music, but I wouldn't be surprised if we even did some Underground tunes even though the tour's under his name. But I would hope that we get to work again in the Chicago Underground because that adds a whole other element to the music.

RM: He actually quit the group, but I have a new group called Exploding Star Orchestra, which is a large group, and he's in that. But he quit Chicago Underground a while ago; I can't say definitely whether he'd want to do something in the future with the group. He quit, so it's up to him—well, it's up to him, me and Chad.

Jeff is one of the most amazing musicians I've ever heard; I love his playing—probably too much. Whatever he feels he needs to do in his trajectory, being a human, I'm certainly here to support, whether it's playing with me or not. Luckily, I'm still playing with him in the larger group.

AAJ: Okay, this record's done. Do you plan to do any Chicago Underground gigs this year?

CT: Yeah. We really need to tour the States. We haven't done that in a really long time, and that's been mostly because we've become so spoiled going to Europe. When we've played the States, we've never played the jazz festivals or jazz clubs; we've always played the rock circuit—which is great because your audience is a lot younger and a lot of times they're hearing improvised music for the first time. So that's a great experience, although the money and the venues often aren't that good. So hopefully, we're going to do some of that soon. I think we're planning to tour Europe in September, but we're making plans to do the States.

AAJ: I don't suppose there's any plan for a Chicago Underground Trio or Quartet recording for the near future.

RM: No, no, there is. We were going to record a Trio record a couple months ago in Chicago, for Delmark, but it just couldn't happen at the last minute due to schedules. But we've been talking about a Trio record and a Quartet record; we have ideas for it because of the touring we did and also from the playing we did with Jason Ajemian. So it's just a matter of timing. Those two projects are certainly in the back of our heads somewhere.

AAJ [to RM]: Tell me about Exploding Star Orchestra. I had the good luck to see the band in Chicago last August at Millenium Park.

RM: Well, Michael Orlove [of the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs] approached me about having a large ensemble representing the more contemporary side of things in Chicago for the series [Made in Chicago] he was doing there—you know, you probably saw the flyer: one night was bebop, one night was vocal. He wanted me to handle the night of contemporary, because he liked what I did in Isotope 217 and the Chicago Underground. I think he wanted it to come more from that angle. I'd been thinking about doing a large ensemble for a long time. He said, "think as big as you want, the budget will be pretty good and you'll be able to really do something nice.

So I put together a list of players. I decided to use some musicians that I had worked with, some musicians that I'd never played with who I admired very much, and others who I had known and heard a lot and also admire. I'd been thinking about writing for larger ensembles, so I had stuff that I had written and had had on paper for years, and some new stuff—plus I was given a residency at L'Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud in France and this grant residency was to do a multimedia piece based on the atmosphere of the Abbaye, which was built in 1101. I spent three months there composing, filming, photographing, painting, and also coming up with texts.

So through this, I started composing these piano pieces that I was going to electronically morph to make these atmospheres for the abbey; I was going to have these morphed piano things to go with these paintings: I made eight big watercolors based on the human body, transcending the human body. So anyway, these piano pieces that I wrote—which were never intended to be made into actual piano pieces—actually turned out to be a means to yet another thing in that three of the songs you heard that night were originally piano compositions from that time I spent writing at the Abbaye.

And there's a story line to the whole two suites that I played that has to do with a sting ray who meets certain things in the ocean and eventually works its way into the Amazon Basin and what they call the Meeting of the Waters here in Manaus, where the Black River and the White River meet. It's almost like a children's story. A lot of things happen, but the first half of the suite has to do with the ocean and the second half has to do with the sky.

Anyway, that's Exploding Star Orchestra. And when you're talking about a fish as ancient as a stingray, you're talking about a very old thing, and I think the group is trying to embody a concept of the actual beginning of time and end of time—how sound can fit into that area as done by thirteen or fourteen musicians of varying backgrounds. Because between John McEntire and some of the guys from Tortoise and people like Nikki Mitchell and Dave Boykin, who's from the South Side—people ask me that a lot, about the segregation in Chicago. I really don't think in those terms. I just think in terms of, well, people can invite people to do things if they want. If you want to use somebody who's on the South Side, then give them a call! If you're talking about politics or how money is given out in the city, that's a whole other issue.

The recording from the live show at Millennium Park is really excellent. I was thinking about releasing it, but there are parts of it that are fairly rough. I don't mind—and the energy of it was amazing, so at some point I think that will be released. But we are recording the music for Thrill Jockey in June so it should be out in late fall, or early 2007.

AAJ [to CT]: I really like the Spiritual Unity project that you did with Marc Ribot, Henry Grimes and Roy Campbell. You did the album of the same name last year, and the band's still performing and exploring the Albert Ayler legacy. Any observations on your experiences with this group?

CT: The one thing I want to say about it is that when the band plays regularly, it really changes. I mean, with any band it's like that—the more you play, the better it sounds. When we did that record for Pi, that was the very beginning of the band. So by the time we finished touring, the band sounded incredible; it was a completely different band. I think it's unfortunate that we didn't record after the tour, because the music came such a long way. We have another tour in the fall, and hopefully we can record something after.

AAJ [to CT]: So as a relatively new New Yorker, you're in the relatively unique position of having been played with the improvising musicians in Chicago—people like Nicole Mitchell and David Boykin, just to name two—and now with New York players. Is there any contrast between the two situations?

CT: There's no easy way to answer that question, but I think that yeah, there is a difference. Things are always changing in Chicago, so I don't really know what's going on there now. One thing I do remember from when I was there was that the way that you lived as a musician was much different from the way that you live in New York. It was a lot easier in a lot of ways to be a musician; I was able to support myself pretty comfortably just playing music. I also wasn't really worried about what people thought about what I was doing—I just did the things I did because I enjoyed playing with my friends and it was just strange that a lot of that stuff that I was doing became somewhat successful.

But in New York, just because it's just so hard just to be a musician because there are so many great musicians here, obviously—oh, man, I wish you hadn't asked me this question—I find that it's just a different mentality. Now, the thing about Chicago that was bad was that although I was doing a lot of different sorts of music, I found myself getting a little bit lazy because I didn't have to bust my ass 24/7 like sometimes you have to do in New York.

AAJ: Just to keep the gigs coming?

CT: Yeah, just to keep the gigs coming. But you were able to be in an environment where you could create your own thing. Not that you can't do that in New York. It's just a different thing.

AAJ: What are you doing this year?

CT: I've got a couple new bands. There's a new band I'm doing with Cooper-Moore and [saxophonist] Assif Tsahar that I'm really excited about. I have a couple recording dates coming up—one is something Steve Swell's doing, but it's working with [percussionist] Warren Smith. I'm really excited about that; he's a legend. Sticks and Stones [Taylor's seminal Chicago band with bassist Josh Abrams and altoist Matana Roberts] are doing a tour in a couple months, and I'm hoping we can record, because that's a great band that needs to keep on working. So hopefully that'll happen soon.

RM: I have another group called Sao Paulo Underground; it's a new group I started with a drummer in Sao Paulo called Mauricio Takara. His family owns a studio in Sao Paulo. The Chicago Underground Duo did a tour of Brazil last year and after, I stayed in Sao Paulo for a few days and played with Mauricio and it was such a great experience that we thought, hey, we should do something with this. Not only is he a great drummer, but he's a great computer programmer, which I really wanted to pull into various projects, because I can only do so much on the computer.

So we ended up recording our first record, which is going to be released in May on Aesthetics Records—the same label that did the Mandarin Movie record. So we're going to do a tour of Poland, and some shows with Mandarin Movie and some festivals in Australia and then a tour in Brazil. I think Chicago Underground Duo will do some touring in September and October.


Selected Discography

Chicago Underground

Chicago Underground Duo, In Praise of Shadows (Thrill Jockey, 2006)
Chicago Underground Trio, Slon (Thrill Jockey, 2004)
Chicago Underground Duo, Axis & Alignment (Thrill Jockey, 2002)
Chicago Underground Quartet, Chicago Underground Quartet (Thrill Jockey, 2001)
Chicago Underground Duo, Synesthesia (Thrill Jockey, 2000)
Chicago Underground Trio, Flamethrower (Delmark, 2000)
Chicago Underground Trio, Possible Cube (Delmark, 1999)
Chicago Underground Duo, Twelve Degrees of Freedom (Thrill Jockey, 1998)

Chicago Underground Orchestra, Playground (Delmark, 1998)


Rob Mazurek

Mandarin Movie, Mandarin Movie (Aesthetics, 2005)
Rob Mazurek, Music for Shattered Light and 7 Posters (Bottrop-Boy, 2005)

Rob Mazurek, Sweet and Vicious Like Frankenstein (Mego, 2004)

Rob Mazurek, Silver Spines (Delmark, 2002)

Isotope 217, Who Stole the I Walkman? (Thrill Jockey, 2000)

Isotope 217, Utonian Automatic (Thrill Jockey, 1999)

Robert Mazurek, Playground (Delmark, 1998)

Chad Taylor

Marc Ribot, Spiritual Unity (Pi Recordings, 2005)

Jeff Parker, The Relatives (Thrill Jockey, 2005)

Triptych Myth, The Beautiful (AUM Fidelity, 2005)

Sticks and Stones, Shed Grace (Thrill Jockey, 2004)

Cooper-Moore/Tom Abbs/Chad Taylor, Triptych Myth (Hopscotch, 2004)

Sticks and Stones, Sticks and Stones (482 Music, 2002)


Visit the Chicago Underground Duo and Rob Mazurek on the web.

Photo Credit
Josh Wildman



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