Somnambule - Writing About Music

Chicago Underground Trio ~ Slon

The Chicago Underground is made up of core duo cornettist Rob Mazurek and drummer Chad Taylor which augments with guest players to become Trios, Quartets, even an Orchestra. This latest formation welcomes back Noel Kupersmith on bass and computer for a third time. Whatever shape it takes the ’Underground offer up certain characteristics: an engagement with the possibilities of both form and of the interaction between acoustic and electronic instrumentation. As a result each track acts as a petri dish experiment offering up new crystals, colours and shapes whose ultimate definition is uncertain until its conclusion. It’s essential to note that the Underground’s investigations are not cold or clinical – quite the contrary, Mazurek and Taylor have one eye on beauty which, when discovered, is distilled into music of rare clarity and pleasure.

Slon is made up of four jazz, three electronic and two intermediate tracks which bridge the gap between the two camps. The more straightahead jazz pieces are predominantly full of busy percussion, racing bass and skating, sliding cornet. They’re exemplary examples of trio interaction, their nature all the more easily savoured for being set among other forms. Shared with the other tracks but more noticeable here is a sophisticated, modernist commitment found in certain late ’60s jazz (think Miles Davis’ ESP, Wayne Shorter’s The Soothsayer).

The title track and Palermo present electronic soundscapes full of blips and stutters, the silver sound of spoons and a humming that could be the sound of muted, slightly exhausted wisdom. Here the Underground has shapeshifted leaving little or no trace of the acoustic trio behind.

Protest places Mazurek at a little distance as though recorded just over the threshold of another room. Gradually strings begin to encroach upon the trio, playing at a different tempo and seemingly to a different tune. It’s a seditious process of subtly mounting confusion which causes a degree of probably deliberate uncertainty: what part of the music to focus on? It’s as though two transparencies placed atop each other but a little askew, were gradually being aligned. Cornets multiply, playing in different styles, then basses reproduce to form an armada. Eventually the pace slows and Protest draws to its end.

Zagreb starts with muted roaring sounds – as if one were listening to distant, inhuman magic. After three minutes or so, the acoustic trio begin to play in reflective mode and shortly afterwards the ambient sounds fade out. There is perhaps an identifiable Chicago Underground specialism here – the spare, elegiac feel repeated with changes with a melody that one could find oneself humming the next day. The structure of the piece – ambience temporarily overlaid then succeeded by acoustic instruments – is simple, but profound. The result is a wonderfully mysterious, meditative piece.
Colin Buttimer
January 2004
Published by the BBC