Chicago Underground Dive into the Laptop-Jazz Vortex


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By Tad Hendrickson

The fusion of jazz and electronics hasn't been a particularly fertile one -- particularly when you consider the possibilities of pairing the agility of improvisation-minded musicians with the infinite possibilities offered by technology, both in the production studio and in the live setting. In the late '60s and early '70s, Miles Davis and producer Teo Macero famously cut and pasted tapes together to create songs with form out of studio jams, but the mercurial Davis moved on to retirement before returning with a more pop sound, and few followed in his footsteps. Even these days where technology surrounds us, jazz musicians still seem to shy away from incorporating electronics into their music in a serious way.

A notable exception is the collaboration between drummer Chad Taylor and cornetist Rob Mazurek, who play together as the Chicago Underground. The duo has been known to expanded the line-up to trios and quartets for a more organic brand of avant-garde jazz that has it roots in the groundwork laid by the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musician organization. But the duo setting of Mazurek and Taylor is where they go straight into the electronic-jazz vortex.

Performing together on and off for the past 20 years, the two now return with 'Boca Negra,' their fifth album as a duo and 10th under the Chicago Underground flag. The tunes on 'Boca Negra' actually don't sound all that different from the glitchy post-rock of Tortoise, with whom members sometimes work in various projects. To get this Chicago Underground duo sound, the two use computers both as musical instruments and also as tools for composition, sometimes re-forming stuff la Davis in post-production. Along with laptops on both their parts, Taylor plays drums, mbira and vibraphone (sometimes all at the same time). and Mazurek is cornet and electronics. The two also got help this time around from producer Matthew Lux.

The most obvious hook to the latest album is that it was recorded in Brazil, but to call this album Brazilian is misleading. According to Chad Taylor, “We have always had a lot of influences in our music. Sometimes it comes out more than others. I think this has a lot to do with are connection to the history of Chicago music. Music in Chicago has had influences from Africa, Asia, India, Europe [and] music from all over the world."

So, typical of the Chicago Underground agenda, the 'Boca Negra' listener gets something that has almost nothing sonically in common with samba or raga or whatever. There is, however, one Brazilian connection that is direct. “I wrote the tune 'Hermeto' for Hermeto Pascal," says Taylor, referring to the eccentric avant-garde Brazilian composer. “We were both on the same flight in Brazil, and that flight was delayed a couple hours, so we just hung out and rapped. He took out a piece of paper and just started writing down melodies that he was hearing in his head. I took one of these melodies, flipped it around and then broke it up between 7/4 and 5/4 and used as a bass line. I then constructed a countermelody, added some atmospheric sounds underneath and came up with the song."

As the album unfolds, a detailed sonic portrait reveals itself. Each song sounds different from the others -- a raucous drum part here, stark ambient tone there, a fluttering echoes of horn above a beat -- yet the 10 songs all seem complementary to one another (including a propulsive version of Ornette Coleman's 'Broken Shadows'). “As a listener, we think it is a much more rewarding experience when you are able to experience the big picture," Taylor points out. “It's like reading a good book. Some chapters are better than others, but when you put all the chapters together they create a story. With our music we try and tell a story."

The two are currently on the road in support of the new album, conjuring on the ideas of 'Boca Negra' but still remaining open even when they are tapping on a computer keyboard. “We'll be prepared for the predictability of unpredictability," says Taylor, stating the obvious but nonetheless finding a fresh way to say it. This pretty much sums up the music of this project, as well.

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