Axis and Alignment
Thrill Jockey Thrill 106

Stripped down to bare essentials of little more than brass, percussion and electronics, the Chicago Underground Duo still manages to produce a sound similar to what it creates with larger groups with similar names.

Yet, as the band’s foundation, Rob Mazurek on cornet and piano plus drummer and vibes player Chad Taylor seem to be able to take a few liberties with the band formula, so that it sounds more like ambient minimalism than anything you would expect from the City of Broad Shoulders.

Despite this, however, the ponderous outlines of the Underground style remain to such an extent that the 11 tracks, which make up this little more than 41 minutes long CD, appear to take an inordinate amount of time to pass under the laser. Often sounding like what would have happened if brassman Chet Baker at his most muted sat in with vibist Gary Burton at his most effete, the duo spends most of its time meandering along a minimalist path. Simple, repetitive note patterns are introduced, exhibited and showcased often appearing to be identical to other sets, no matter where they appear on the disc.

The situation doesn’t change that much even when Mazurek turns to the piano or Taylor the guitar. When he sticks to the bass strings, at least Taylor gives some of the tunes rhythmic shape, but as a soloist, he has an unfortunate resemblance to placid Earl Klug. Overdubbing drums and vibes, as is done often here, at least provides some texture, but what’s produced is still more cushiony than upfront.

Throughout, you get the feeling that you’re experiencing a inverted formula to what innovators like saxophonist Julius Hemphill developed in the 1970s. Then the idea was to restrict to rhythmic pulse to a steady beat to give the soloists polyrhythmic freedom.

Perhaps the fault is that two musicians function as both soloists and rhythm section. In fact, the few times, as on “Particles and Transfiguration” when the drummer produces a Latinesque, foot tapping rhythm or the cornetist rips off some unexpected arching notes, the unvarying backing patterns pulls everything down to earth again. “Rotation” may serve as the title of another tune that introduces miscellaneous percussion to the mix, but the improvisation still seems to follow a straight line. Taylor’s paradiddles meshed with electronic rumbles, that in other cases would be organ tones, turn “Access and Enlightenment” into a sprightly tune. But the few whooshes, whizzes and splashy vibrations on these outer space oriented pieces certainly won’t make anyone forget the advances of Sun Ra.

Deviations from the formula appear briefly on “Average Assumptions and Misunderstandings”, a mouthful of a title for a less than two minute piece. Vaguely reminiscent of pianist Cecil Taylor’s work with vibist Earl Griffith in 1958, but Taylor (Chad) is much more frugal mallet soloist, while Mazurek, as a pianist, is somehow more bombastic and/or minimal than Taylor (Cecil) ever was. On the other hand, “Exponent Red” contains real excitement as Taylor creates low-pitched patterns with his guitar, produces bass drum beats and stomps, while the cornetist growls — cleanly — his way into a higher range.

Happily on “Two Concepts For the Storage of Light”, the longest track at more than nine minutes the duo puts minimalism aside for a time and, after a brass band intro rife with multiphonics, creates a simple, hummable melody that finally dissolves into electronic whooshes. In between, Taylor, who after all has played with Chicago tenor titan Fred Anderson lets himself go, creating cymbal splashes and snare accents, while Mazurek dirties his tone enough to head into the stratosphere as he works variations on the standard patterns.

It may be reductive to say, but working alone apparently allows Taylor and Mazurek to come with music out of the ordinary Chicago Underground Trio or Quartet orbit. It’s still not as ground breaking as it could be, but this newest disc gives you some hope for future sonic adventures.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Micro Exit 2. Lifelines 3. Particles and Transfiguration 4. Exponent Red 5. Average Assumptions and Misunderstandings 6. Lem 7. Two Concepts For the Storage of Light 8. Memoirs of a Space Traveller 9. Rotation 10. Access and Enlightenment 11. Noon

Personnel: Rob Mazurek (cornet, piano, electronics); Chad Taylor (percussion, vibraphone, guitar)