Chicago Underground Duo

Age of Energy
Northern Spy NS 020

Wadada Leo Smith & Louis Moholo-Moholo


TUM CD 029

Not the most common configuration by any means, the mating of trumpet (or cornet) and drums is usually avoided because of a perceived lack of tonal colors and contrast. That concern hasn’t daunted these duos, with the qualities implicit in Free Music adding to their singular audacity. At the same time each chooses to highlight their brass-percussion output in an original fashion. California-based trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, 72, and South African percussionist Louis Moholo-Moholo, 73, play completely acoustically on their first-ever meeting. In contrast the Chicago Underground Duo (CUD) consisting of corniest Rob Mazurek, 47, and drummer Chad Taylor, 39, utilize a variety of older percussion and up-to-the-minute electronic peripherals to expand their sound.

The differences are more than generational however. Smith, an early member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, has been an exponent of highly original Jazz saturated sounds from his defining gigs with the likes of Anthony Braxton, to his recent pan-stylistic Golden Quartet program, which also provides the backbone for his recent Ten Freedom Summers project. Firmly grounded in his homeland’s indigenous music as well as Jazz, Moholo-Moholo made his name with bands such as The Blue Notes and the Brotherhood of Breath, and has continued to utilize that blend of swing, improv and kwela in his playing. He and Smith aim for panoramic compositions and improvisations, most notably the nearly 25 minute “Ancestors” which reflects both antiquity and futurism.

Having moved from playing so-called straight Jazz to textures that welcome layered and processed computer programming, Mazurek and Taylor design a constantly moving sound design no matter how it’s constructed. Age of Energy’s defining piece is the almost 20-minute “Winds of Sweeping Pines”, which is only latterly concerned with the sort of virtuosic skills the older men display on their disc. Instead it relies on stacking improv, electronica, Jazz and even Rock evocations on top of one another, showcasing textural originality.

Uniting all four of CUD’s tracks are a series of undefined pulsations, drones, wave forms and echoing sequences created with and without studio overdubbing. Perhaps Mazurek and Taylor should be lauded for following the latter path on the title track, but in truth the most notable components are Mazurek’s sharp cornet stabs, which cut chromatically across Taylor’s backbeat smacks and ruffs. Furthermore the drummer’s mbira twangs when coupled with the cornetist’s well-modulated tones on the minimalist “Castle in Your Heart” resemble mid-1950s Milt Jackson and Miles Davis playing a ballad; especially when related to the recurring drone layering and sequences of processed voices which proceed the track on “It’s Alright”. Among the pulsating sibilate-like tones and thick rubs that make up the sonic landscape, those which are most conspicuous are the multiple mirror-image splintering and splayed brass timbres plus a percussion interlude which appears to be glass bouncing against a drum stick.

Correspondingly, although the extended “Winds of Sweeping Pines” set the scene with wonky electronic wriggling and repetative static oscillations, the track doesn’t kick into gear until the synthesizer outputs a bass vamp that could have wandered over from Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon”, which proceeds to accompany Mazurek’s flutter-tongued smears and Taylor’s staccato ruffs.

High quality in its hermetic electro-acoustic world, Age of Energy appears to lack the humanity present on Ancestors. On that CD, before the title suite’s dual improvisation, the most revealing tracks pinpoint variations between the South African’s and the American’s playing and composing. For instance, Smith’s “No Name in the Street, James Baldwin” is all balanced swing. As frenetic as the pace gets when the trumpeter’s lines evolve from heraldic grace notes to bugle-like charges and finally exploding triplets, the drummer’s wide cymbal swishes, intuitive bumps and pressurized recoils keep the interface balanced. A semi-dirge for his father, Moholo-Moholo’s “Siholaro” moves in clear-cut sections. Beginning with a funereal tempo and ending hymn-like, the centre section is devoted to the percussionist quickening the tempo to a life-affirming dance at the same time as tremolo brass notes curve every which way.

Making extensive use of the percussion’s and brass instruments’ natural qualities, the “Ancestors” experiments with the timbres suggested by two of the world’s oldest instruments that are beaten and blown. Except for a time during the exposition when it appears that Smith is shaking sandbags to contrast with Moholo-Moholo’s flams, shakes and bounces, the trumpeter comments appropriately with his brass instrument every time the drummer introduces another improvisational sequence. Matching Moholo-Moholo’s military paradiddles with smeary plunger work for instance, Smith outshines the percussionist’s subsequent cymbal splatters plus flams and drags as he cleverly measures out a call-and-response formula with himself – matching brassy extended timbres with fully rounded slurs. Eventually as the drummer’s theme variation expands so that his solo too is bifurcated enough to recall rhythms from both log and batá drums, Moholo-Moholo takes centre stage to vocally rhyme off the names of a series of musical heroes they both honor. “We love you” he shouts after each person is named.

Although this jam session indulgence ultimately weakens the title track, the CD confirms that age is no barrier to creating definitive improvised music, although slightly more thought-out programming would have been welcomed. The CUD session on the other hand is weakened by slightly too much programming.

Putting aside minor quibbles, both these CDs are still valuable demonstrations of creativity in unusual duo settings.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Ancestors: 1. Moholo-Moholo/Golden Spirit 2. No Name in the Street, James Baldwin 3. Jackson Pollock - Action 4. Siholaro 5. Ancestors Part 1 6. Ancestors Part 2 7. Ancestors Part 3 8. Ancestors Part 4 9. Ancestors Part 5

Personnel: Ancestors: Wadada Leo Smith (trumpet and percussion) and Louis Moholo-Moholo (drums, percussion and voice)

Track Listing: Age: 1. Winds of Sweeping Pines 2. It’s Alright 3. Castle in Your Heart 4. Age of Energy

Personnel: Age: Rob Mazurek (cornet, electronics and voice) and Chad Taylor (drums, mbira, drum machine and electronics)