Chicago Underground Duo: Two Voices, One Sound

Paul Olson By

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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.


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