Isotope 217˚, 1999 / Chicago Underground Duo, 2000 / Mandarin Movie, 2005, / Exploding Star Orchestra, 2010 / Starlicker, 2011 / Sao Paulo Underground, 2013 / Pharoah and the Underground, 2014 / Rob Mazurek & Jeff Parker, 2015
Chicago was my home from 1995 until early 2006. Even accounting for a haze of nostalgia, it was a significant time in the city's history of jazz, marking a period of renewal and rebuilding that saw a number of new voices emerge from the city that would become world-renowned figures in improvised music. It just also happened to be home to my very own epiphanies in jazz. This combination has created my undying loyalty to the Chicago scene—which explains why I have 8 recordes by Rob Mazurek (leading various groups and spanning nearly 20 years).
Out the gate, Mazurek showed little allegiance to jazz orthodoxy. Isotope 217˚, one of his earliest working groups, featured 2 members of tortoise: John Herndon and Dan Bitney. Isotope paved the way to reconstituting 'jazz rock's tarnished name. It seems no small coincidence that this band shares (most) of it's name with a 1970s prog band that once counted Soft Machine bassist Hugh Hopper as a member. He would dig even deeper into this vein with Mandarin Movie, a one-off band that courted genre mash-ups like ambient jazz metal.
Of his more jazz-tinged outfits, the Chicago Underground Duo (sometimes Trio or Quartet) still freely veers into far-flung territories, like ambient electronics. More than any of of his early work, this working group—which always featured drummer Chad Taylor as his principle foil—set the tone for many of his future explorations. There's an emphasis on improvisation that favors abstraction, but never forgets melodic hooks. Meanwhile, the São Paulo Undergeround trio seems another beast entirely, at first. They lean heavily on electronics—often sounding like some particularly outernational downtempo—that balance of abstraction and melody is still the guiding factor.
Many of Mazurek's larger groups are extensions of the two Underground outfits. The Primative Jupiter LP is a combination of those 2 bands for a set built around legendary saxophonist Pharoah Sanders. Exploding Star Orchestra features many of the same players, pursuing some of Mazurek's most most expansive, sprawling creations to date. Stars Have Shapes is handily one his most satisfying releases yet (admittedly, though, the vinyl version is severely edited down from the CD / download version and loses some of the drifting impact).
Most recently, Mazurek's groups have been contracting, bringing it back to base. Starlicker was another one-off, but this one a small tiro featuring John Herndon (of Tortoise, again) and vibraphone wunderkind Jason Adasiewicz. Even in a more traditional lineup like this, you'd still be hard-pressed to prove there were no electronics involved. The playing is dense and all lines blurred. Rob's even been plying more duo records of late (outside of the Chicago Undergound), but Some Jellyfish Live Forever is exceptional among them, a guitar / cornet duo between Mazurek and guitarist Jeff Parker. They've been sparring on-and-off for over a decade now, and it shows in the harmony of their instrumental visions.
Chicago has produced some of the most hard-working, trend-blind musicians in improvised music in the last twenty years. From the rise of leaders like Ken Vandermark and Rob Mazurek to, now, Tomeka Reid, Jason Adasiewicz and Nicole MItchell, means it is not a trend about to relent. New York may well always be the mecca of jazz, but don't take your eye off Chicago for too long.