Isotope 217 | Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Isotope 217


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When Jeff Parker, the inventive young AACM guitarist best known for his work with Ernest Dawkins's New Horizons Ensemble, became a permanent member of Tortoise this year, he solidified a promising link between two of Chicago's most exciting music scenes. As he applies his jazz sensibility to that outfit's rock-based collages, and as members of Tortoise indulge their taste for the funk with Parker and other jazz players in Isotope 217, interesting questions arise: What went wrong with fusion the first time around? And if we could go back in time, how would we fix it? The answers may lie in something like Isotope 217's compulsive grooves, introspective brass, and careful attention to layering. No glib histrionics, no empty virtuosity--just an ear on Miles Davis's best electric bands and an even hand on the mixing console. The group includes cornetist Rob Mazurek, who has made a remarkable journey from the mainstream into free jazz over the last three years; aside from the prevailing traces of Davis, the influences of Don Cherry and even Bill Dixon are evident in his sound. On Isotope 217's impressive debut, The Unstable Molecule (Thrill Jockey), Mazurek works wonders alongside Sara P. Smith's elastic, earthy trombone, adding particularly Cherry-like phrase fragments on "Beneath the Undertow" and laying slow tones over busy rhythms. Tortoise percussionists Dan Bitney and John Herndon weave together acoustic and synthetic rhythms while bassist Matt Lux holds steady. Parker is rarely in the spotlight, but his presence is huge--he lurks in the background, subtly coloring the proceedings, sneaking in a deadly wah-wah groove on "Phonometrics," the hardest-funkin' cut. Though the record is definitely a studio creation, with tasty effects and startling edits, the band has been working out its material in public every Tuesday at the Chopin and has slowly earned a rep for strong live performances. This particular show is billed as a CD-release celebration. Tuesday, 9:30 PM, Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division; 773-278-2210. JOHN CORBETT

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Brad Miller.

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