Axis and Alignment (Thrill Jockey)


For pop fans, the Chicago Underground Duo represents their best chance at making that perilous crossing over to jazz. For starters, this is where the post-rock, ambient, minimalist and experimental web has been spinning into - the realm of free jazz.

For those of us with jaded rock ears and who find the whole notion of exploring the jazz back catalogue too daunting, this is one dip in the pool that won’t have your leg bitten off.

In the 80s, the crossover jazz figure for rock ears was guitarist Pat Metheny, who with his fluid solos excited the rock imagination, then in the late 80s/early 90s, it was saxophonist John Zorn, who with his sputtering split-second sax spurts gave dissonant credence to the death/thrash metal scene. Here, Rob Mazurek’s and Chad Taylor’s Chicago Underground Duo has given us the most perfect synthesis yet of free jazz and electronica.

Imagine cool ambient-techno polyrhythms fired by bursts of hard bop and you have Axis and Alignment, the seventh album from the duo who first began recording in 1997 with Twelve Degrees of Freedom.

What makes the duo interesting are their roots. Both come from the creative ferment of Chicago, nurtured by the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). This jazz collective ensured that the free spirit of jazz bloomed since they started classes and workshops in 1965. Which is why circa 1990s free jazz is synthesising with electronica. There is an openess towards music that only dedicated musicians could have inspired.

While Taylor has played with the likes of saxophonists Lou Donaldson and Fred Anderson, Mazurek actually got his start in Edinburgh where he recorded three solo albums on a local label there. But he only hit his stride back home in the US when he started recording with Taylor as the Chicago Underground. His hard bop background was the perfect colour for Taylor’s percussion palette, which sort of explains why many of his their covers are adorned by paintings. Both musicians play the vibraphone which has led some reviewers to note how their music echoes Indonesian gamelan, another plus for their sense of musical colours.

The titles on Axis and Alignment reads like a Sun Ra album - Memoirs of a Space Traveller, Rotation or Two Concepts for the Storage of Light. Is this why their music has been described as the "new tone science"?

Nevertheless when you listen to Lifelines, the warm balladic melody is gently uplifting before Mazurek’s cornet blowing becomes freer and freer with each re-statement of the melody.

Particle and Transfiguration is a burst of dissonance, a reminder that jazz articulates passion better than electronica. Lem has electronics taking the foreground with busy percussion and noodly cornet lines imitating buzzing circuitry in the background.

On other tracks such as Access and Enlightenment, it’s not hard to see why Mazurek’s blowing has been compared to Miles Davis. Like Davis, there is a thin, piercing warmth in Mazurek’s tone.

Tortoise’s fans should take note. This album was produced by John McEntire and Bundy K Brown, and they have produced several of the previous albums as well.

Axis and Alignment is the Chicago Underground finding that axis where art aligns with science, where red-hot passion finds a cool, cool place to burn in. (9) – Philip Cheah

Note: The above interview was published in BigO #198 (June 2002).
Click here to order a copy of the issue (S$4.80). Overseas readers can email for rates.

Flamethrower (Delmark)

Last year, we sang the praises of The Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble, the European group pushing the envelope in jazz. It seems to be like the American version has surfaced in the form of the Chicago Underground Trio.

The Chicago Underground Trio is neither a trio nor bristling with underground leanings. It is more a trumpet-guitar-bass-drum quartet. Rob Mazurek, the trumpeter and leader, boasts a personal discography of hard bop recordings made in Scotland, where he spent a good few years playing mainstream jazz. It’s likely that he picked up some tips for his present strategy watching Evan Parker from the sidelines.

As a whole the band is forward and hard driving, in contrast to the minimalist leanings of Evan Parker’s band. Chad Taylor and Noel Kuppersmith go for a firm rock-like backbeat on percussion and bass respectively. The Parker in the lineup is Jeff Parker who plays a commending, textured guitar. He can be forthright, as on the opening Quail, mysterious (Woman In Motion), abstract (504) or down and out mean (The World Was Changed). Mazurek isn’t as awesome, although he turns in some stunning work — check out the pulsatingly free trumpet-led trio on The Tungflec Treaty.

As a unit, the Chicago Underground Trio are co-ordinated and tight. The only problem seems to be that of wanting to do too much at each given moment. Not short of ambition or vision, they need to remember that jazz can’t be rushed. (7) — Sam Ng

Note: The above was published in BigO #195 (March 2002).
Click here to order a copy of the issue (S$4.80). Overseas readers can email for rates.

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