The swirling musical energy that surged through Chicago in the 1960s with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) is felt today in that city’s underground free-jazz movement. Cornetist and sound sculptor Rob Mazurek co-leads two of the top groups on the scene, Isotope 217 and Chicago Underground Duo.
For Mazurek, it was never a matter of playing “commercial” music or not. It was just following his muse — and many local musical mentors — that led him to jazz.
“I want people to be able to enjoy our records at home on any level — washing the dishes or sitting down and immersing themselves in this large Rothko-esque thing,” he says. “I want every sound to connect. Not only in relation to the other sounds, but in relation to everyone else in the room — the air, the space itself — how that projects, how that projects inward. … I yearn for that cosmic connection.”
Chad Taylor, heralded as “the most graceful of free drummers,” serves as Chicago Underground Duo’s “rhythm section.” Mazurek, with cornet, synthesizer, pianette, laptop — and a storehouse full of rich sound samples — weaves in and out of the flow. He is a master of laying down bits of “found sound,” like chunks of radio static, that give melodic as well as rhythmic structure.
“It’s always challenging, but the Duo has been the underground unit that’s played the most, so it’s pretty together and easy at this point.
“Not easy,” he amends, “but it flows nicely. We’ve done a lot of gigs.
“I still do play a lot on the cornet, but I think I’m finally coming to the point where I can just approach sound as sound,” Mazurek continues. “I don’t think of electronics as necessarily cold. It depends on how you use them. The new Duo record, Synesthesia [Thrill Jockey, 2000], is for me a perfect example of that aesthetic, of how you put sound together in an organic way — not just, like, ‘Now I’m gonna play a solo on the cornet, and now I’m gonna program this computer.'”
Mazurek, 35, was born in Jersey City and moved to the suburbs of Chicago at age 10. Seven years later, he reached the city proper.
“My first influences were the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Ornette Coleman, and all the ’70s Miles [Davis] records. Lester Bowie and stuff like that,” he says. “When I moved to the city, I got the chance to hear Blue Note records and Impulse records [hard bop] and was influenced by stuff like that. I was living in the city, and the people I was around tended to be more into that, and so I gravitated towards that. It wasn’t until six or seven years ago that I went back to the music that I listened to when I was little — Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, freer types of things.”
Serious bandstand time on the bop scene gained him keen improvisational skills. Mazurek’s cornet playing brings to mind trumpeter Don Cherry (who fancied a Pakistani-made pocket trumpet). Mazurek had played cornet in his school band at 10, then switched to trumpet as a teenager before returning to cornet.
“I like it because it’s smaller, and it feels really good in my hands. It’s a physical thing,” he explains. “Don Cherry said one of the reasons he played pocket trumpet was that it was closer to his ears, and it’s kinda that and kinda unexplainable at the same time. The trumpet always felt like a foreign instrument to me.”
Mazurek also ventured full-bore into electronics, throwing samples and loops into the mix. “All kinds of different sounds,” he elaborates. “I like sounds. I pursue sound more out of a personal level than a science level.” He plays his cornet through two pedals, a ring modulator and an analog delay.
“I also have a synthesizer and a Hohner pianette electric piano that I use. I have a minidisc player that has collected sounds from all different sources that I pull up on occasion. I also have a laptop that I trigger from, but it’s all very primitive fashion,” he insists. “I don’t use MIDI, so it’s all played in real time.”
Isotope 217 was formed in 1995 in Chicago, nearly 30 years after musicians like Muhal Richard Abrams, Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman and Fred Anderson started the AACM. The group was a “woodshedding opportunity” — a forum for already-busy musicians to get together and stretch the boundaries of improvisation and composition. The group explores straight and implied time on its new CD, Who Stole The I Walkman (Thrill Jockey, 2000), with bits of samples, electronica, loops, grooves and distorted, wild free jamming. The disc maintains a balance between live performance and studio-built tracks.
“We try to hit all the elements of sound in both groups,” Mazurek says. “And basically we play compositional stuff and noncompositional stuff, the timbre of a lot of instruments, all the instruments blending. Really, the only difference is that Isotope has five people and Chicago Underground has two.”
Asheville-born Johnny Herndon plays percussion and sampler, and Matt Lux brings his Tranquility Bass funk background to the mix in Isotope 217. Drummer Dan Bitney and guitarist Jeff Parker (of the rock band Tortoise) round out the band.
“I like it when things are implied,” Parker told The Wire recently. “There was a lot of improvisation with Isotope in the early days, but once we really got into it, we tried to apply a certain discipline to the way we improvised. We would put restraints on ourselves in rehearsals — where, say, you can only play one note or you can only play, like, a certain rhythm — and we’d get into that. It’s really easy for Rob and me to just blow all day, but to me that’s boring.”