Utonian Automatic / Synesthesia / Mandarin Movie / Stars Have Shapes / Double Demon / Beija Flors Velho e Sujo / Primative Jupiter / Some Jellyfish Live Forever

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.

field report no.031716

LOCATION: Littlefield BK.NY
SUBJECT: Tortoise

I was about to move to Chicago, from Portland, Oregon to start art school. Being a lifetime music nerd, I acclimated myself to the idea of moving halfway across the country by trying to discover what was going on in my new home's music scene. I think it was WIRE magazine that twigged me to Tortoise. My first purchase was the Gamera EP on day-glo yellow vinyl (oh, how I wish I still had that copy). The encounter was transformative. A few years later, I saw them live for the first time, at a blistering sold out show, headlining one of the Lounge Axe farewell gigs, as it was ignobly shut down. Subsequent albums, Millions Now Living and TNT are landmarks in my aesthetic evolution.

Somewhere along the way, either I got overly comfortable with Tortoise, or they got too complacent. Historically, I've blamed guitarist Jeff Parker, who replaced David Pajo and Bundy K. Brown before him. Seeing them live, though, I have to admit I've been too harsh. Parker is, of course, a great guitarist, but I'm still not sure he's the best one for Tortoise. Where every member of the band is a stylistic swiss army knife, Parker seems to have one setting: the jazz guy in a rock band. Maybe a more omnibus, all-styles guitarist would push their sonics further afield.

This night also made me reassess my opinions of their LPs. Two albums—Standards and Beacons of Ancestorship—easily supplied the most barnstorming takes of the night. I liked both albums, well enough, when they were released but clearly have not gone back to them enough.

I showed up early, for the first act of the night: Man Forever, led by Kid MIllions of Oneida. I'd seen a set by him before and been put off by it. Recently I'd listened to an excellent album by him with the classical ensemble So Percussion, and thought it was worth a second chance. Unfortunately, this night was an almost carbon copy of the first disappointment. I was treated to a wanking drum circle with intermittent wordless singing in poor multi-part harmony. I did score a copy of said album with So Percussion on vinyl though…

Mind Over Mirrors was worth the early arrival, though. His pump-organ and arpeggio-driven ambient drone is simple but supple. It contains deep wells of tone and dissonance to dwell in.

NOTES: Tortoise; Mind Over Mirrors; Man Forever