Chicago/London Underground

A Night Walking Through Mirrors
Cuneiform Records RUNE 428

Like a canny car fanatic who soups up his American-made flivver by adding appropriate accelerating parts from foreign autos, this year’s Chicago Underground (CU) Ensemble model is hybrid Anglo-American. CU inventors, cornetist Rob Mazurek and percussionist Chad Taylor, append high-class British engineering from pianist Alexander Hawkins and bassist John Edwards to come up with a model that speeds along with novel ferocity without losing any of the already developed unexpected sonic allusions.

The test drive is in the form of a four-track,79 minute session recorded at London’s Café Oto and begins like watching a sports car accelerate from zero to 150 rpm within seconds. No sooner does Mazurek snarl out echoing grace notes distorted by electronic processing on the title track, then he’s answered by a hearty backbeat plus oscillated mbira plinks that intertwine in the same upper strata. Hawkins’ steadfast accompaniment and Edwards’ downward slaps are the equivalent of cautioning snow tires, added to prevent unexpected skids or overturns without lessening forward motion. With expository pauses arriving at appropriate junctures, the narrative often fragments into output realignment with players subdividing into duos and trios. Some of the most noteworthy changes involve the spontaneous interactions of brass, keyboard and strings, with muted cornet coloration facing kinetic tinctures, unrolling across a continuum created by electronically blurred string movements.

Hawkins’ keyboard command is showcased on “Boss Redux”, as he stretches out a modal line to include pressurized glissandi, unexpected digs into the soundboard and clipping keyboard patterns that combine Gilbert & Sullivan-like airiness plus the bent-note colorations developed by Jelly Roll Morton during the same era. Edwards’ quadruple stroking on the same track confirms that he can replicate string quartet timbres as sophisticatedly as his low-pitched plucks cement rhythmic momentum. As a drummer, Taylor’s solo turn comes on the concluding “Mysteries of Emanating Light”, but throughout the textural versatility of his mbira tone-stretching, delayed and disrupted by processing, toughens the percussion thrusts; lengthen string reflections; or produces sofa cushion-like swaddling for piano and/or cornet excursions. Also muddied by electronic flutters and crackles, Mazur’s excursions into speaking-in-tongues or scatting are so distinctive that they’re like putting Jaguar stylings and decorations onto a Volkswagen frame. Not only do the contours and hesitations of his vocal aides resemble his brass playing, but his murmurs suggest dispatches from outer space not the Chicago Underground. A pseudo-Bop player at one point and a nonsense syllable gurgler at the other, Mazurek collides against or recoils from keyboard comping and double bass strums until the collective theme fractures into atom-sized shards and then silence. Following Taylor’s coda-extending drum solo on the concluding “Mysteries of Emanating Light” this four-way connection of alternating kinetics and stillness reaches a crescendo that combines the rhythmic fluidity of Jazz with the abstraction of unfettered improvisation.

During its many iterations, some CU collaborations have been more notable than others. In this case, the ease with which this foursome intersects is encouraging enough to call for another run around the track.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. A Night Spent Walking Through Mirrors 2. Something Must Happen 3. Boss Redux 4. Mysteries of Emanating Light

Personnel: Rob Mazurek (cornet, sampler, electronics and voice); Alexander Hawkins (piano); John Edwards (bass) and Chad Taylor (drums, mbira and electronics)