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Chicago / London Underground: A Night Walking Through Mirrors

Barry Witherden By

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Rob Mazurek is a remarkable musician, with a rare breadth and depth of expression. Off-hand, the only artist I can think of who possesses a similar emotional profile is Wadada Leo Smith. Like Smith, Mazurek can sear your ears and nerves one minute and soothe your soul the next, without any sense of strain or contrivance in the transition. This capacity was displayed in an especially emotional way with his 2014 release Return the Tides: Ascension Suite and Holy Ghost (Cuneiform) which he made with Black Cube SP. Dubbed "a modern spiritual," this was recorded in May 2013 following the loss of his mother, who had died just 11 days after being diagnosed with cancer. The juxtaposition of raw tenderness and angry catharsis was overwhelmingly moving.

I have commented elsewhere that his playing, "always deeply affecting and timbrally luminous, achieves the paradox of being simultaneously corporeal and ethereal." On this album, recorded live at London's enterprising Café Oto, the emphasis is on the visceral, but there are, nonetheless, passages where players and listeners can catch their breath somewhat, and plenty where the textures and complex interplay of the four musicians can be appreciated.

Mazurek and Chad Taylor have worked together as the Chicago Underground Duo for two decades, and when they invite guests in... which they only rarely do... they are picky. Mazurek says that guests must be "100% into the moment and what we're doing." For this gig they brought in Alexander Hawkins and John Edwards to help celebrate the Underground's 20th anniversary. It is not just national pride that leads me to say that the Brits entirely fill the bill. Edwards's agile bass lines, as ever, constitute a burnished tower of power, and Hawkins threads robust, tough melodic lines through some of the most turbulent ensembles. Taylor's driving, supple playing is, of course, quite at home.

Back in the heyday of free jazz/fire music its ferocious turbulence drew criticism along the lines that it was fueled by hate and anger. John Coltrane famously responded that the only person he was angry with was himself when he failed at something he was trying to do musically, but certainly many of his avant-garde colleagues were, understandably, fiercely opposed to many of the ills of society, racism not least amongst them. Mazurek insists "This is protest music. That's why it's called "Underground." It's not just called that for fun. We really believe in it. The world has become so homogenized and leans so far towards the right, and this music expresses complete freedom and lack of borders. Our music is all about the obliteration of any kind of oppression, the tearing down of any kind of wall— freedom and equality, both sonically and spiritually." For a change, that seems more than empty rhetoric: OK, it's political and social movements, not art, that really change societies, but this is music that feels like it could shake foundations. Scarily spooky one minute, scarily overwhelming the next, it'll then catch you by surprise with episodes of delicacy and reflection.

Track Listing: A Night Spent Walking Through Mirrors; Something Must Happen; Boss Redux; Mysteries of Emanating Light.

Personnel: Rob Mazurek: cornet, sampler, electronics, voice; Chad Taylor: drums, mbira and electronics; Alexander Hawkins: piano; John Edwards: double bass.

Title: A Night Walking Through Mirrors | Year Released: 2017 | Record Label: Cuneiform Records

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