Cornetist Rob Mazurek began assembling his pals under the various Chicago Underground rubrics--Duo, Trio, Quartet, Orchestra--back in the mid-90s, but he's never been real precise about his nomenclature. Both of the trio albums the group has made for Delmark feature four musicians, for example. Only Mazurek and percussionist Chad Taylor play on Axis and Alignment (Thrill Jockey), the latest effort attributed to the Duo, but thanks to electronics and overdubbing the album sometimes sounds like the product of four or five musicians. The 11 pieces range from short, abstract vignettes to longer, groove-based workouts with extended solos. "Lifeline" is grounded in a forceful, circular rhythm sketched out by Taylor on the trap kit and a set of melodic variations played by Mazurek on cornet that recall the folksy, multiethnic lyricism of late-era Don Cherry--but then Taylor prods it with an insistent vibraphone pattern, and Mazurek adds a snippet of synthetic bass propulsion. "Exponent Red" rides on a synth-bass ostinato and a twitchy but tightly coiled groove by Taylor, then turns ghostly and dubby near the tune's end, while Mazurek alternates between hooky riffs and abstract blasts. The synth bass returns on "Two Concepts for the Storage of Light," amid one of the most frenetic rhythms Taylor has ever played in any of the Underground bands. "Particle and Transfiguration" goes back to drums, vibes, and cornet, but the ferocious attack is gradually smothered in clouds of white noise. Taylor, a onetime classical guitar student, pulls out his old ax briefly on the episodic "Memoirs of a Space Traveller," plucking a pretty acoustic pattern while Mazurek fumbles with his laptop. While I find the prevalence of the synth bass unfortunate--it seems unnecessary, and live it prevents the musicians from suddenly altering the flow if the mood strikes--Axis and Alignment strikes the Chicago Underground's best balance yet between electronic and acoustic, composed and free, melodic and expressionistic. Taylor and Mazurek, both of whom have moved out of town in the past year, will play twice this week; Monday's performance will include a set with guitarist Jeff Parker. Casey Rice will provide live video accompaniment for both shows. Sunday, May 5, 9 PM, Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western; 773-276-3600. Monday, May 6, 7 PM, Claudia Cassidy Theater, Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington; 312-744-6630.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.