Cornetist, composer, and visual artist Rob Mazurek is an environmental artist, in the loosest sense of the word. Sure, he’s not digging holes in the ground like Michael Heizer or building cairns like Richard Long, but he is environmental in the sense of creating atmospheric, ambient, yet quite active music. It’s a slippery slope to make improvised music with a sense of the “ambient,” because this music has often been treated as accompaniment for other activities: dining, socializing, and so forth. So, like the spray paintings of Jules Olitski, one could potentially mistake the gauzy cornet and electronics of some of Mazurek’s work for a pleasing background, rather than a delicate play of surfaces. The Chicago Underground has been one of his most consistent projects of the last decade and a half, releasing a series of albums in duo, trio, and orchestra formats on Thrill Jockey and Delmark, always featuring drummer Chad Taylor and often with other luminaries of the Chicago scene like Jason Ajemian, Jeff Parker, and Noel Kupersmith. Age of Energy is the Duo’s first disc for New York label Northern Spy, following 2010’s excellent Boca Negra (Thrill Jockey).
The disc opens with “Winds Sweeping Pines,” a nearly 20-minute exploration that surpasses in length the usual four- to seven-minute Chicago Underground vignette. Keyboards and detached vocal fuzz herald the piece, which for its first five minutes focuses on these burbling synthesizer tendrils before Taylor’s drums enter, providing a dryly languid crack to Mazurek’s lopsided electronic progressions. Swirling Putney unease enters midway through, reminiscent of the more disquieting moments of early Tortoise and their “agitated ambience,” but set against Taylor’s free-time rhythm choir. Taylor’s cymbal crash is reminiscent of Elvin Jones’ sweaty and cursing counterpoint, but peppered with slippery backbeats and breaks that give a caterwauling edge to the suite’s proggy closing section. Sprawling, to be sure, but among some of the drawn-out segments there are valuable ideas and snatches of brilliant interplay. “It’s Alright” marks the first appearance of Mazurek’s cornet in the context of sculpted atmospherics and a masked repetition of the tune’s title phrase. Brassy lines seem unfinished, peeking out and disappearing while processed to the degree that Mazurek’s sound (which can be rather fat) becomes more and more wispy. This is partly the point: to create music that, in trumpeter-composer Bill Dixon’s words, is “a cube-like thing, that if it were possible [one] could walk into the sound and play in it like that.”
Yet resolution, while not always a deciding factor in the quality of improvised music, is still something that is noticeably lacking in a piece like this, and the absence of perceivable strength can almost feel like an affront. After all, neither Mazurek nor Taylor is a particularly “light” player, and to create an environment does require various aspects (temperature, color/light, texture) to be palpable. The title piece does show the pair stretching out in thick, layered improvisation, with Taylor’s pell-mell drums and Mazurek’s motorik synths a fierce coagulant that supports nattering brass shouts and split tones. In some ways, his playing here recalls the sweeping bravura of someone like Stephen Haynes, and might be among the most incisive statements that the trumpeter has waxed.
“Age of Energy” is also one of the shorter pieces here, and concision is one of the keys to the Chicago Underground’s music. What works in a five-minute tune doesn’t always hold in longer duration. Put another way, the sidelong opener could have been broken up into smaller segments, rearranged and contrasted, even though such boldness is a rare reserve in the group’s palette and could run counter to their intent. Still, the fact that the closing section of “Winds Sweeping Pines” is reprised as the brief “Moon Debris” (available as a digital-only track) is a testament to a degree of punchiness inherent in the Underground, realized through editing.
While not their strongest statement to date, Age of Energy is still a viable piece of the puzzle, and following the work of Mazurek and Taylor remains a near-requirement for those invested in modern creative music.