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Afrobeat, Game Boy Techno Make A Darkly Beautiful Pair On Chicago Underground Duo's 'Locus'

By Chris Bentley in Arts & Entertainment on Apr 17, 2014 9:30PM

Chicago Underground Duo (Northern Spy)

Since the mid-1990s cornetist Rob Mazurek and percussionist Chad Taylor have been at the center of Chicago’s fertile experimental jazz scene. With Jeff Parker (Tortoise) they formed the Chicago Underground Collective in 1996, creating a platform for improvisational musicians to perform as trios, quartets and orchestras.

As the Chicago Underground Duo, Mazurek and Taylor just released their seventh album. Locus (Northern Spy records) pares down the group’s electronica-laden explorations in length, bypassing 10+ minute tracks for nine offerings that nonetheless proved expansive at Wednesday’s two-set album debut show at Hideout, part of Umbrella Music’s Immediate Sound Series.

Maybe Chicago Underground Duo’s mélange of avant-jazz, electronica, Afrobeat and techno breakbeats isn’t organic, but in the hands of Mazurek and Taylor it flows together easily. Mazurek’s pre-programmed samples and real-time tinkering on electronics lent the duo’s intensely moody explorations a unified sound—Locus, like the soundscape of a Chicago Underground Duo show, is an alien world that feels oddly familiar.

At times Taylor traded his drum set for an mbira, an African thumb piano whose jangling metal keys and wincing overtones meshed perfectly with Mazurek’s electronic squoinks when amplified. On the Ghanaian tune “Yaa Yaa Kole,” the group’s samples and live percussion weaved together seamlessly. The song’s syncopated rhythm still shined, even as electronic fuzziness crept in and Mazurek’s metal-muted cornet danced lightly. Taylor used the thumb piano’s buzz and rattle later in the set for atmospherics, playing off the breathy wanderings of Mazurek on a bamboo flute.

On cornet Mazurek rambled from bop runs to mood-setting, looping and echoing his microphone as he blasted tinny notes into it, or rolling the instrument off-mic and carefully vacillating its aluminum mute. These techniques were equally effective in adding color to the tunes whether they were spare or straight-ahead—shading an eerie improvisation full of negative space like “The Human Economy,” or a tsunami of electronica set to Taylor’s thundering backbeat.

About those beats. Taylor takes anything thrown at him in stride. His fills squeeze into uptempo breakbeats tighter than Tetris pieces falling into place. Staying in lockstep with a robotic bass line is no easy feat, and he does so with soul.

On album closer “Dante,” a 3/4 “sonic travelogue” the musicians whip up a maniacal groove, only to dive deeper into what the title suggests must be Hell for its B section. Typical of the group’s range in both dynamics and mood, it ends not with a dark explosion, but with a bright, ethereal flutter of synths and cymbals.

It’s the first album I’ve heard that employs a Game Boy alongside wooden pianos and bamboo flutes. But rather than sound disparate, it’s cohesive. Even through Locus’ waves of layered electronica and noise, which are deeper and more powerful than on Chicago Underground Duo’s previous releases, you’re hearing the ghost in the machine.