Chicago Underground Quartet

Good Days
Astral Spirits AS 125

David Grubbs/Mats Gustafsson/Rob Mazurek

The Underflow

Corbett vs Dempsey CD 0063

Returning to familiar territory with a twist and exploring new avenues, Rob Mazurek continues to demonstrate his capacity for constant musical change on these releases. Now Texas-based, Mazurek reconvened a quartet version of the long-running Chicago Underground (CU) group. Good Days features not only Mazurek, but also New York percussionist Chad Taylor, his associate of two decades, plus frequent CU member guitarist Jeff Parker and brand new affiliate keyboardist Josh Johnson, who is also part of Parker’s Los Angeles-based band. A change of pace, The Underflow finds the brass player’s outpouring in an original configuration alongside American guitarist David Grubbs and Swedish saxophonist Mats Gustafsson, both of whom have been involved in as many affiliations as Mazurek.

Demonstrating individualistic estrangement from fashionable Jazz affectations, Good Days begins with a Shorter composition. Not one by currently fashionable Wayne but “Orgasm”, a spikier line by his brother, the late New Thing trumpeter Alan Shorter. Based on constant movement, the piece features whizzing electric buzzes, flutter-tongued trumpet variations and slurred guitar fingering. From that point on the quartet continues on its distinctive journey

At times when the drum backbeat become too simple and guitar expositions a little too creamy, there’s a danger some of the tracks will descend into smooth funk-Jazz territory. But luckily tropes such as Parker’s single-string Blues and Latin references heat the narrative enough to prevent it from falling beneath tremolo orange riffs on “Strange Wing”; or on the other hand demonstrate how parade-ground-like drum rattles and Rock-like fretting from the guitarist can be jerked into jumpy motion on the concluding “Westview”. Infusing hi-hat clanks, slippery guitar licks, swaying piano and organ patterns and oscillated squeaks, the group maintains its unique program. “All the Bells” provides Mazurek’s most distinctive showcase, extending his trumpet slurs into high-arching pitches and buttressing this bright output with muezzin call-to-prayer echoes evolving over rugged bell shaking and percussion strokes.

These brass extensions are on show on the other CD as well, when Mazurek adds wooden flute, electronics percussion and voice interludes to his piccolo trumpet lines. But overall the Athens-recorded disc is as unlike Good Days as moussaka is to a burger. Jazz and pop music references are discernible on the quartet session whereas extended pieces on The Underflow are characterized by unvarnished experimentation. Not only are Grubbs’ guitar patterns highly electronic and out of the ordinary, but Gustafsson defines sequences with flute, fluteophone, baritone saxophone and live electronics.

Perhaps the most characteristic track, which lives up to its name, is “Goats and Hollers”. Beginning with tremolo pulsations from the electronics and guitar, high-pitched trumpet sounds, crackling, buzzing and the result of smacking its bell against the mike, come in-and-out of aural focus only to be superseded by yodels and near-hysterical yells from Mazurek. As keyboard-like pumping whooshes and twisted guitar string slashes become more prominent, a final top-of-lungs yell is superseded by an open-horn trumpet obbligato and finally mellow brass puffs.

Besides adding mechanized stutters, altissimo screams and electrified pummels to the tracks, Gustafsson contributes are distinctive as well. On “in a Hall of Mirrors”, which like many of the tracks creeps out in near silence, ascending textures soon become whiny high-pitched flute puffs plus bite-sized deep breaths. Yet from that point on the narrative is characterized as a contrapuntal challenge between tongue stops and static air blown through Mazurek’s trumpet and hyena-like snarls and snorts from Gustafsson’s baritone saxophone. At first wave forms and positioned strums from Grubbs’ guitar anchor the improvisations. But by the final section as guitar strokes detune into disconnected timbres, Harmon-muted brass lines and burping reed snorts move to the forefront. It’s clear that the track’s idea is to savor as many different timbres as can be expressed with the instrument collection.

Weaving diddly-bow-like echoes, intermittent voltage movement, human-like cries, reed slurps and buzzing burbles into the performances’ landscapes, Grubbs, Gustafsson and Mazurek ensure that the sounds on The Underflow are distinctive as they are unique. Plus Good Days confirms that Mazurek’s improvisational good days can be also be expressed in familiar configurations.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Good: 1. Orgasm 2. Strange Wing 3.Good Days (For Lee Anne) 4. Batida 5. All the Bells 6. Unique Spiral 7. Lomé 8. Westview

Personnel: Good: Rob Mazurek (piccolo trumpet, electronics, bells): Jeff Parker (guitar); Josh Johnson (synth bass, organ, piano); and Chad Taylor (drums and percussion)

Track Listing: Underflow: 1. City Stone Sleep 2. Goats and Hollers 3. Creep Mission 4. Not in a Hall of Mirrors 5. I'll Try Anything Twice

Personnel: Underflow: Rob Mazurek (piccolo trumpet, wooden flute, electronics, percussion, voice); Mats Gustafsson (flute, fluteophone, baritone saxophone, live electronics) and David Grubbs (guitar)