Graded on a Curve: Chicago Underground Duo, Locus

17 years of existence finds the Chicago Underground Duo offering up their new record Locus. Never a pairing to sooth the savage purist, the partnership of Rob Mazurek and Chad Taylor continues to explore wide-ranging sonic territory across this album’s nine succinct tracks. Along with a solid jazz foundation, Locus features their familiar use of electronics mingled with a welcome if fleeting Afropop influence. If not the Duo’s strongest release, it’s still a rewarding LP.

Trumpeter Rob Mazurek and drummer Chad Taylor’s oeuvre under the moniker Chicago Underground Duo is but one manifestation of a larger entity, namely the Chicago Underground Collective. Formed in 1996 by Mazurek, Taylor and guitarist Jeff Parker, the Collective has served as the springboard for a substantial body of jazz-derived but stylistically restless and highly progressive sound creation.

The aspect that informs all of the Chicago Underground material, whether it’s the Duo’s seven records, the Trio’s four (three of them on the Windy City’s long-serving Delmark imprint), the Quartet’s solitary self-titled release or the ’98 album by the Orchestra (actually an augmented core quintet) Playground (also on Delmark), is forward-thinking experimentation born from the age-old discipline of extended practice and study.

Taylor was gigging professionally by the age of fourteen, and in 1991 he left for New York to play with such inside stalwarts as pianist Junior Mance and alto player Lou “Alligator Boogaloo” Donaldson. By contrast, Mazurek is the product of a decidedly more academic background; a Jersey born Chicago transplant, he studied theory and practice at the Bloom School of Jazz before working with an assortment of the city’s musical vets. He’s collaborated since with saxophone giant Pharaoh Sanders and prominently with the brilliant late trumpeter/composer Bill Dixon.

In part due to Mazurek’s guest role on Tortoise’s ’98 LP TNT, many will persist in associating the Collective’s activities with their locale’s post-rock coterie (the two camps are in fact thick as thieves), but breaking out the ’98 debut 12° of Freedom and giving it a fresh listen quickly underscores the Duo’s connection to their home city’s highly worthwhile experimental jazz tradition.

And this is partially because of a non-egocentric approach to improvisation. While it bears mentioning that Mazurek’s trumpet is tangibly linked to post-bop (particularly is his hearty soloing), as their name plainly indicates there is no clearly defined leader in any of the Collective’s lineups, even as Mazurek and Taylor do constitute its core.

The emphasis on equality connects the Underground to the Chicago-based Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (prior to forming the Collective, Mazurek worked with the late pianist Jodie Christian, one of the founders of the still extant AACM) and also to a pair of its prime exponents, the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Air (Mazurek has also played with that trio’s bassist Fred Hopkins).

This is not to infer that the Duo (or for that matter, any of the Collective’s productivity) lack a distinctive voice. To the contrary, Mazurek and Taylor’s latest effort broadens their cultivation of a decidedly contemporary and unique form of jazz fusion. After a long and fruitful association with hometown label Thrill Jockey, their last effort Age of Energy found them on the roster of the upstart Brooklyn-based indie Northern Spy.

Issued in 2012, the prior disc included a pair of lengthy tracks highlighting their ability to work in extended settings without instilling restlessness or boredom. But Locus is distinguished by the brevity of its nine selections; nothing breaks the six-minute barrier and only three last longer than five. Furthermore, the opening title cut boldly emphasizes their continued dedication to non-trite, organically flowing electronic environments.

“Locus” also provides a nice taste of the Duo’s multi-instrumental versatility. Trumpet is absent, its tones replaced by Mazurek’s washes, surges and spurts of electronic debris as Taylor lays down an effectively funky groove; if used as an introduction to the pair’s expressiveness, one would likely not think of the Chicago Underground Duo in jazz terms.

The following track “Boss” does immediately feature the trumpeter on his main axe, his melodious lines surrounded by the drummer’s dynamic and progressively more assertive rhythms. Executed quite capably, the horn’s attractive (yet not overly pretty) tone combines with Taylor’s confident momentum and is enhanced further by an electronic pulse that rises in intensity as the piece develops and then shifts in texture as it reaches its conclusion.

The following entry “The Human Economy” is a markedly different affair, placing Mazurek’s improvising low in the mix as it’s enveloped in a thick electronic mist. Too forceful to be accurately described as ambient, the selection instead offers a subtle (perhaps ambiguous) mood that’s very appealing. Even more attractive is the terrific Afropop showcase “Yaa Yaa Kole,” which marries Mazurek’s horn groove to Taylor’s percussion as the drummer accents the proceedings with the traditional African instruments mbira and balaphone.

Its first three minutes are fairly reminiscent of the killer Congolese group Konono Nº1 jamming with the estimable Ethiopian bandleader Mulatu Astatke (though the concluding section does head for more outbound territory); bluntly, “Yaa Yaa Kole” serves as one of Locus’ standouts. In fact, the cut’s only tangible flaw comes directly down to its concision.

In addition to their use of electronics, the Duo is also not a bit hesitant in the employment of overdubbing. This may perturb some listeners who prefer their jazz to be untainted by studio trickery, though even prior to Teo Macero’s work with Miles Davis, the use of editing was more prevalent than many people think on period jazz albums. Indeed, even on some designated as classics.

Mazurek and Taylor are also not shy in the slightest about utilizing boldly contempo modes of production. In retaining the engineering services of their friend John McEntire (he of Tortoise fame), they only strengthen their connection to the whole Chi-town post-rock shebang. With the electronics foregrounded and the strains of trumpet again absent, “The House of Axe” significantly amplifies this textural link.

Then “Borrow and Burry” arrives to significantly deepen Locus’ already diverse program. Featuring moments of unadulterated free improvisation via Mazurek’s bamboo flute and Taylor’s skittering, hyperactive acoustic guitar, it also sagely incorporates the human voice into the equation while adding strands of electronic shading.

But in the tense atmosphere of “Blink Out” those techno elements (Mazurek is credited with electronics, synth and Game Boy) are again intensified to strong effect, though I’m even more impressed with the complex and fascinating cross-cultural blend of the jittering “Kabuki.” And with closer “Dante,” the electronic and the improvisational merge together in approximate equality and provide Locus with its fiery (if you’ll pardon the allusion) finale.

The Chicago Underground Duo is now appropriately described as a tandem of veterans, but the secret to their continued relevance is how they tackle their art with youthful vigor. This isn’t their best work; for that, I’d look to ‘10’s Boca Negra. Frankly, a few of these tracks register as too truncated. It is a fine addition to their already impressively consistent discography, and anybody that’s enjoyed one of their albums in the past (or digs electric Miles or Herbie Hancock’s Sextant) shouldn’t hesitate to give Locus a try.


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