The Chicago experimental scene is something of an incestuous melting pot of shared ideas and shared sound. The Chicago Underground Duo of Rob Mazurek and Chad Taylor are two vital members of the seeming tireless core of creative upwelling that sits at the centre of this scene; and through their work as a duo, and in larger ensembles (the Chicago Underground Trio, Quartet, Orchestra – not to mention the Exploding Star Orchestra, plus their work with other bands such as Iron and Wine and Marc Ribot’s band), they’ve been hugely influential in making that scene what it is. Boca Negra (named after the mouth of the volcano Tiede on Tenerife) is their 5th album as a duo and continues their quietly dazzling mix of jazz improv and studio electronics.
Mazurek and Taylor’s two main areas of expertise are the cornet and percussion respectively, and these again form the backbone of the album. Yet the two are so virtuosic in both their chosen instruments, and in the variety of other instruments they add to the mix – the vibraphone, the mbira, piano, celeste – and also in their post-production and mixing techniques (where the ghost of Teo Macero, Miles Davis’ studio magus during the purple patch from In A Silent Way to On The Corner, looms large) that like their preceding records Boca Negra manages to sound intimate and expansive – collagist, even – all at once.
‘Green Ants’, the album’s opening track is probably the ‘straightest’ thing here – a kind of introduction to the themes of the record I guess, with Mazurek and Taylor both letting rip – Mazurek with some frighteningly deft blasts on his cornet, and Taylor showcasing his great loose-skin barrelling drum sound. As the track reaches its climax though, there is an ominous period of quiet, with Taylor playing on the casings and rims of his snare and floor toms and the Mazurek’s cornet suddenly being fed through a mangle of delay. These two sections of the track are like a microcosm of the album. Those ominous sounds are reprised in the last three tracks, which act as a kind of suite; yet here there is an oddly soothing feel to things, with ‘Vergence’ sounding almost like some of the experimental jazz core stuff from the mid ‘90s – all cut-up rhythms and warm basslines.
‘Broken Shadows’ is something of a centrepiece moment. It’s a re/deconstruction of an Ornette Coleman piece that first appeared on the Complete Science Fiction Sessions collection (which appeared in 2002 and is a companion piece to the Science Fiction album from 1972). The original has Coleman and (I think) Dewey Redman, on alto and tenor, creating a strong central melodic line that hovers over the thrash and churn of the rhythm section. Here the effect is oddly disorienting as Taylor recreates that threshing churn but with an added vibraphone layer (which he played simultaneously with the drums by the way) and its produced in such a way as to almost bury Mazurek’s cornet under the tumult – it has something of a topographic feel, as if Mazurek were playing from beneath a lake, beneath a raging sea. It’s peculiar and quite unsettling.
I’m horribly inattentive when it comes to contemporary jazz, so have a minuscule frame of reference (it begins and ends with a bit of ECM and Rune Grammafon, essentially) as to how representative of where things are and where they’re going this is, but on this evidence I feel like I should go digging. Boca Negra is a great start to the year.
You can download the track ‘Spy on the Floor’ here.