Chicago Underground Trio


Review by Brad Walseth

Rob Mazurek is a leading figure in the avant garde in Chicago. Working with such individuals and groups as Tortoise, Jim O Rourke, Gaspr del Sol, Isotope 217, Luc Ferrari, Sterolab, Tigersmilk and Ted Sirota’s Rebel Soul Ensemble, Mazurek was also a leader of the Chicago Underground collective and Exploding Star Orchestra. Now relocated and living in Brazil with his wife, Mazurek continues to experiment with sound, while also maintaining his work as a noted visual/multi-media artist. He retains many friends and colleagues here in Chicago however, and returns to work with them periodically.

An early adherent to Miles Davis’ electronic work, Mazurek plays cornet, along with electric celeste, Chinese cymbal, bamboo flute, moog source and moogerfooger pedals, and computer. He is joined on this session by drummer/percussionist/vibraphonist Chad Taylor, who has been the only other consistent member of the Chicago Underground Trio since they started over a decade ago. Taylor also no longer lives in Chicago – having moved to New York City, where he is a much-in-demand musician. The two are joined by talented bassist Jason Ajemian, who shows he has the stamina and creativity to keep up with and contribute to the trio’s musical vision. Rounding out the team is filmmaker Raymond Salvatore Harmon, who directed this DVD chronicling the group’s July 31, 2006 performance at the German Cultural Center in Chicago.

Against a white wall, and dressed in white while visuals were projected, the band improvised for approximately 75 minutes. Mazurek and engineer Todd Carter then manipulated the sound in post-production, while Salvatore took the video and worked his magic. The result is a fascinating blend of “live” sound and effects, studio manipulation and psychedelic visuals including oversaturated colors and split screens. The huge splotches of color and video distortion are reminiscent of Mazurek’s artwork and make a great complement to the sound collage.

Bassist Ajemian opens the concert with an aggressive bass solo. This surprising, and welcome, choice was a last minute decision. As Peter Margasak explains in the liner notes, the original plan was for drummer Taylor to start things off, but as he was still smarting physically from a recent performance in New York, Ajemian was asked to step in, and he more than fills the bill by beating his bass strings until his hands are bloody.

Mazurek and Taylor soon join their young bassist and the music moves through many intriguing styles and directions. Taylor shows his array of talent on the drum kit, the vibraphone and marimba, and the mbira. When he weaves his hypnotic patterns on the thumb piano, the music takes on a Phillip Glass-like feel. Mazurek’s cornet playing shows a Miles influence in his sense of timing and drama, but he generally has a bolder sound. His keyboard playing is almost childlike, but adds a lullaby-ish melodic thread to the howling chaos whirling around him.

This is music that seems to emanate from that primal, subconscious source that the best artists, writers and improvisers tap into, and the listener is utterly captivated by the flow of the “songs” one into the other as though they had been thoroughly composed and not created out of thin air. Charged by the energetic and sympathetic connection between the three members, the music unravels itself like some cosmic mystery. To my ear, the music reaches its most intensely penetrating pitch when Mazurek’s electronics are added into the mix, and the contrast between acoustic and artificial becomes lost. The visuals are colorfully compelling, but it is honestly the music that I find most haunting and to which I may return most often.

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