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Chicago Underground Duo - Axis and Alignment

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Artist: Chicago Underground Duo

Album: Axis and Alignment

Label: Thrill Jockey

Review date: Apr. 9, 2002

A further addition to the genre-bending canon of modern improv, Axis and Alignment is the seventh recorded incarnation of Rob Mazurek’s evolving Chicago Underground conglomerate, and the third release with percussionist Chad Taylor as the Underground Duo. In its entirety, the project has maintained an invigorating sound, with nods to the A.A.C.M. and early West Coast free jazz layered by the digital production of the Chicago post-rock bastions. But the most brilliant material has emerged from the core component of the duo, so well suited is Mazurek’s staccato phrasing and pitch potential to collaboration with a drummer. Their debut, 12 Degrees of Freedom, for want of restraint, proved one of the best improvisational recordings of the 1990s, while Synesthesia began refining the texture of this massive achievement with still broader instrumentation. On the new Duo record, Taylor and Mazurek continue to pare the project down to its essence, and while their concision verges dangerously close to austerity in the early moments of the album, the two ultimately prove themselves worthy of the biannual reinvention, albeit somewhat thematically complacent.

Always an even synthesis of hard bop duo exercise and ambient, down-tempo pieces, the duo’s format remains intact for Axis and Alignment, though moving past the previous fetters of the dynamic. On the quieter moments of the first two albums, atmosphere persists at the occasional expense of the improvisational zeal that would seem to underlie the project. A standout track from 12 Degrees, “Waiting for You is Like Watching Stillness Grow Into Enormous Wings,” with all the latent promise of its brilliant title, is essentially a static number, closer to modern ambient than free jazz. Mazurek has even carried the effect into his pop collaborations with Sam Prekop and Jim O’Rourke. In the new material, rather than seeking to establish repose, the meandering mood numbers work to mirror the instrumental interplay of other tracks. Broadening its palette ever so slightly to incorporate piano, the ominous “Average Assumptions and Misunderstandings” recalls the fluxus experiments of Guillermo Gregorio’s Otra Musica. A less isolated example is the relationship between the first two tracks on the record, “Micro Exit” and “Lifelines.” The former utilizes glacial textures of cornet, vibraphone, and bells to create a foundation for the Latin-tinged bop of the latter, while both share essentially the same mood.

Meanwhile the bop outings themselves, at least initially, lack the sense of urgency imparted by previous work. Chad Taylor sounds almost too tight starting off, all the more so for someone who has commanded the cymbals on nearly every album he’s appeared on. Mazurek, meanwhile, seems unnecessarily restrained for the first several tracks. His style, in its consistency of ebb, flow, and flourish, has proven so recognizable as to suggest the cornetist, who likely has not had a day off from recording and touring (and painting, apparently), has finally overextended himself. The last half of the record ultimately proves this less of a reality than a fodder for naysayers, but nay they shall say, and even the more chaotic improv tracks, such as “Particle and Transfiguration,” appear tame and forced by comparison with the material on 12 Degrees of Freedom, let alone the achievements of Don Cherry and Ed Blackwell when they conceived the genre of cornet-percussion duets nearly 40 years ago.

The Underground Duo is nonetheless responsible for its own substantial contributions to the free jazz oeuvre, both in previous recordings and in the brilliant material that comprises the latter half of Axis and Alignment. On “Two Concepts for the Storage of Light,” Taylor and Mazurek finally give themselves the latitude to develop the ideas left unresolved on the first side. Over the course of nine minutes, the track moves from building organic tension to space jazz throw-down, finally incorporating a heretofore-sparse electronic component. On last year’s self-titled Chicago Underground Quartet release, the two teamed up with Jeff Parker and Noel Kupersmith and managed with frightening economy to conflate elements of the modern improv tradition in nine concise compositions. The duo, lacking the anchor of seamless melody in Parker’s guitar work, has difficulty expressing itself sufficiently in less than four minutes, necessitating the harmonic texture of Mazurek’s digital soundscapes as bridge. Open space expands, as indeed it should, but only defaults when asked to accommodate the parameters of brevity. From “Two Concepts” forward, the space is allotted its proper proportions; the subsequent material expands at will, and the collaboration breathes easier to the record’s conclusion.

Rob Mazurek carries at least as much weight on stage as in the studio, and my last experience with his live dynamic bore ironic witness to the axiom. Isotope 217 was playing the East Coast, but found themselves justifiably disgruntled and apparently half-drunk by the time they arrived in New England. After a set sloppy enough to test the limits of Sun Ra’s science fiction ideal, Mazurek, the only stoic member of the outfit, remained onstage, tinkering with his synthesizers. The sound he produced, a dense, deafening loop, must have been as fresh and pervasive as the one encountered by La Monte Young’s superintendent, stumbling waywardly into the downtown loft of the Theater of Eternal Music in the mid-sixties. Mazurek’s triumph, so far as his brief career would portend, has been finding a place for that roar in his music. He seemed comfortable in the midst of the drone, as I find myself a shade more comfortable with this dimension present on his duo recordings.

By Tom Roberts

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