The Chicago Underground Duo, despite its name, is not a shadowy pair of comic book- inspired crime fighters. This dynamic duo has no underground lair and the only thing they're fighting on their new album might be the rigid conventions of the jazz musical establishment.
The group consists of accomplished musicians Rob Mazurek and Chad Taylor. Part of the Thrill Jockey consortium of musicians who revolve around the label's popular practitioners of sugary coated progressive rock, The Sea and Cake, and their other label projects, Mazurek and Taylor, are both well-versed in the Chicago School of post- rock and postmodern, jazz inflected electronic music.
This music, exemplified in the lush soundscapes of Tortoise, one of the aforementioned Thrill Jockey side projects, and closely imitated by labelmates Isotope 217, and rival Bubble Core acts Mice Parade and The Dylan Group, has proved to be a real contender in the battle over jazz's future direction. As neotraditionalists headed by Wynton Marsalis and his cronies weigh in against a variety of experimental and improvisational forms, a new forward-thinking kind of jazz music, relying heavily on electronic sounds and not unlike that found on Synesthesia, begins to seem like an increasingly viable option.
From the outset, one is amazed at the fullness of sound on the album that is created by only two musicians, and a large part of this should be credited to John McEntire. McEntire, who at this point could be considered a veritable man-child over at Thrill Jockey, is one of the masterminds behind The Sea and Cake and Tortoise. And although he is first a drummer, he proves to be just as talented and capable in his duties as sound engineer on Synesthesia. It should also be mentioned that another veteran of The Sea and Cake, Sam Prekop, plays Moog on one track, as well, demonstrating his gratitude for Mazurek and Taylor's previous efforts on his self-titled Thrill Jockey release. But on Synesthesia, Mazurek and Taylor have the spotlight, appearing very comfortable under its glare.
True to form, the tracks on the album have very abstract titles like "Blue Sparks from Her, and the Scent of Lightning" for example, and only hint at what one might hear musically. But it is musically where the album presents itself as something special, something different, something very interesting for the ear to feast on. Mazurek, utilizing his cornet (often muted), electronics, and "found sound" constructs intricate melodies out of seemingly unstable free improvisations in the tradition of Don Cherry, Archie Shepp, and Miles Davis during his electric years. Meanwhile, underneath him, Taylor lays down loose lines of percussion and chimes in on the vibraphone at just the right moments.
Quite a few of the original compositions begin with far-out Sun Ra influenced bursts of creativity only to fuse seamlessly into equally spontaneous grooves as established by the shuffling beats of Taylor's drum kit. Eventually even this sound melts into repetitive figures on the vibes, which then seem to fade into the distance, as if relishing its one-way ticket to the far reaches of the cosmos.
Track #6, entitled "Labyrinth," is especially effective in this regard. The first part of the song is filled with Taylor's shimmering solo work on a variety of cymbals and other Eastern-tinged percussion, before Mazurek's muted cornet, subtly weaves a tapestry of complementary pitches, upholding the intentionally icy tone all along. Below Mazurek's hauntingly beautiful expressions, glides an engagingly warm gamelan-like pattern on the vibraphone as handled by Taylor that seems to be perfectly attuned to the Earth's orbit through the solar system.
Thrill Jockey bills this debut from The Chicago Underground Duo as "free music for free people, at home with your jazz stacks, works with your dance tracks." Sure, why not? But in my mind this music goes even further on its genre-busting excursion. A magnificent example of what happens when open-minded musicians realize the full potential of jazz in the present tense, Synesthesia, contrary to the word's connotations, could, in fact, be the reawakening of the rebirth of cool.