The Chicago Underground Quartet bottle their lightning again | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

The Chicago Underground Quartet bottle their lightning again 

For 19 years, their first album was their only album—but now longtime collaborators Rob Mazurek, Jeff Parker, and Chad Taylor have recaptured the group’s freewheeling jazz spirit.

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Clockwise from top: Chad Taylor, Jeff Parker, and Rob Mazurek, who cofounded the Chicago Underground collective in the mid-90s, and Josh Johnson, who plays in Parker’s New Breed Band and joined the quartet for the new album - COURTESY ASTRAL SPIRITS RECORDS
  • Clockwise from top: Chad Taylor, Jeff Parker, and Rob Mazurek, who cofounded the Chicago Underground collective in the mid-90s, and Josh Johnson, who plays in Parker’s New Breed Band and joined the quartet for the new album
  • Courtesy Astral Spirits Records

Experimental jazz is not a stadium-packing pop genre. But you wouldn't know that from the enthusiasm of the shoulder-to-shoulder capacity crowd stuffed into the narrow space along the bar at Dorian's on a Sunday earlier this month. Programming director Joe Bryl spun a set of classic spiritual jazz from the likes of Brother Ah and Infinite Spirit Music, and then the crowd cheered as Jeff Parker's New Breed Band took the stage. Parker is something of a legend, not just in the jazz world but beyond; he's a key member of postrock collective Tortoise, and he's worked with the likes of Joshua Redman and Meshell Ndegeocello. But rather than taking the spotlight, he seated himself in the most poorly lit spot. He wasn't much more than a shadow as his guitar released languidly spiky notes from the dark like magic.

The social-distancing measures intended to slow the spread of COVID-19 weren't yet in place, but Parker already had words for the man most responsible for the severity of the U.S. crisis. In the middle of the set, he leaned over to the mike and said, with his usual nonchalance, "This song is called 'Go Away.' It was written for Donald Trump, because I want that motherfucker to go away." Then he launched into the intricate bop hook while bassist Paul Bryan played a killer funk line behind him and Josh Johnson stepped away from his keyboard to blow a skronking sax solo. The high point of the set, "Go Away" was funny, cool, and weird—a crowd-pleasing rave-up and a knotty experimental exploration at the same time, with Parker chanting "Go away!" with great enthusiasm on the chorus.

Parker lives and works in Los Angeles now, but his career famously started in Chicago. He'd come to Dorian's on a short stateside tour supporting his wonderful new album, Suite for Max Brown, which he's dedicated to his mother. But he's also got an even newer record: Good Days (Astral Spirits) features Parker and two of his longest-term collaborators, drummer Chad Taylor and cornetist Rob Mazurek. In 2001 they all appeared on the album Chicago Underground Quartet, one of Parker's favorites in a discography hundreds deep. And on Friday, March 27—after 19 years that have taken all three musicians to new cities and even new continents—they'll finally release the Chicago Underground Quartet's second album.

Parker first came to town in 1991, after dropping out of music school in Boston in his mid-20s and getting a job at Tower Records on Clark and Belden just as it opened. His parents wanted him to complete his degree, but he wanted to try to make a career as a working musician. "I knew that if I'd finished, I would just end up being a music teacher, and I didn't want that," he says ruefully. "I know myself, and I know I would've thought, 'I don't have any gigs. I'll go and be a substitute teacher.' And then the next thing, it's 20 years later. That definitely would have happened, if I had finished school."

Parker was already interested in experimental and creative music when he arrived in Chicago, but he gigged wherever he could, playing weddings and straight-ahead jazz gigs. It was on one of the latter, an early-90s date led by legendary Chicago jazz drummer George Fludas, that Parker met Mazurek.

In 1981, when he was just 16, Mazurek had been thrilled to see Sun Ra at the Chicago Jazz Festival. But when he moved to Chicago from Naperville in 1983, he left his avant-garde tendencies behind, instead playing what he calls "classic mainstream jazz" around the city. By the time he met Parker, he was getting bored, and the guitarist didn't have much trouble converting him to the "out" side. "It was really meeting Jeff in the early 90s that piqued my re-interest in more so-called avant-garde musics," Mazurek says. "Sun Ra, Art Ensemble, Paul Bley, late Coltrane, various electronic music from Xenakis to Autechre."

In early 1996, shortly after Parker joined Tortoise, he and Mazurek set up a regular workshop at the Green Mill for musicians to rehearse new material together without an audience. There, Parker says, Mazurek began "to write some compositions that he didn't think would sit so well" with the players on his straight-ahead jazz gigs.

One of the regulars at the workshop was Taylor. He'd started gigging in Chicago in the early 90s, when he was 16, inspired in part by a high school friend, Chicago bassist Matthew Lux. It was Lux who told a young Taylor that he had to stop listening to Kenny G. "Matt was like, 'No no no no, we've got to get you on the right track,'" Taylor says. Lux soon started him on a diet of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Miles Davis, and Art Blakey.

For a while Taylor tried to hold down a day job while playing gigs at night; in the mornings he was a lifeguard for the indoor pool at the Standard Club downtown. His roommate, bassist Joshua Abrams, would look over at him and see him literally frowning in his sleep. "Josh told me, 'Chad, you just can't do this anymore.' And of course I was scared. How am I going to make a living. But he said, 'Just quit the job and put all your energy into music. The music will support you.' And sure enough, that's happened."

Taylor knew Mazurek because they'd played together in a band with bassist Dennis Carroll in the early 90s. He knew Parker through Lux, who also worked at Tower. The three had long been mutual admirers. Since 1992 Taylor had been in and out of town, partly to study jazz drumming at the New School in New York, but in 1997 he settled in Chicago—not long after the workshop at the Green Mill had evolved into a loose band with rotating membership.

They called themselves the Chicago Underground, and they released a series of records with various personnel: the first, 1998's Playground (Delmark), is credited to the Chicago Underground Orchestra. Recorded throughout most of 1996, it features Mazurek, Parker, Taylor, trombonist Sara P. Smith, and bassist Chris Lopes. Taylor and Mazurek also formed the Chicago Underground Trio, with Noel Kupersmith on bass; their albums often involved Parker as a guest artist. When Kupersmith didn't show up to practice one day, Taylor and Mazurek started playing without him. "It wound up being, you know, amazing!" Taylor says, and that configuration became the Chicago Underground Duo. Then in 2001 the trio decided to release a record with Parker billed as an official member.

Chicago Underground Quartet (Thrill Jockey) is a classic album—though it would also turn out to be the quartet's only recording for almost 20 years. It dips in and out of jazz traditions with the rolling, itchy ease of Parker's opening guitar figure on "Tunnel Chrome," the first track. "I'm on probably 200 albums at this point, you know," Parker says. "And I don't like most of them. I don't like my playing on any records. But the Chicago Underground, I think I played pretty well." You can hear Mazurek's straight-jazz influences on "Four in the Evening," which is as mellow as Chet Baker. But then on the next track, "A Re-Occurring Dream," he's spitting and squalling like a strangled duck while Parker plays brooding, dissonant lines. And on the next, "Welcome," the band channels Coltrane while Taylor provides thunderous free-jazz backing on the drums, against which the other members clank and spit toward nirvana.

New Breed Band keyboardist and saxophonist Josh Johnson, a Chicago native and Los Angeles resident, says the record was one of his early loves, as a fan and as a musician—he first heard it as a teen in the mid-2000s. "I hadn't really heard anything like the Chicago Underground Quartet, that combined a lot of the elements that I hear in jazz. It had so many things I was interested in, so many disparate interests, but musically all combined in a way that feels very effortless."

Over the next two decades, the quartet's members worked on a range of projects, separately and together. By the early 2010s, Kupersmith had dropped out of music to become a plumber in Milwaukee. Parker moved to LA in 2013, and in 2016 he recorded The New Breed, an album dedicated to his father that uses beats and samples he'd been collecting and thinking about since his Chicago days. From 2000 till '07, Mazurek lived in Brazil, where he formed the São Paulo Underground with percussionist Mauricio Takara and keyboardist Guilherme Granado (and had the opportunity to record the sounds of electric eels for some of his compositions). In 2005 Mazurek started the Exploding Star Orchestra, a large ensemble dedicated to investigating Chicago's avant-garde traditions; the initial lineup included Parker and Lux. After several years back in Chicago, in 2015 he moved to Marfa, Texas, where he started a music festival called Desert Encrypts. A live album from the 2018 festival, Desert Encrypts Vol. 1, features Taylor on drums alongside Mazurek, pianist Kris Davis, and bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten.

Taylor left Chicago for New York in 2001, then moved to Philadelphia in 2016. He continues to make a living as a free-jazz drummer, somewhat to his surprise. In regular times, he tours two weeks out of the month—mostly in Europe, where the pay is better—and in 2018 he released his first solo album, Myths and Morals (Eyes & Ears). "I'll be on about 17 recordings coming up," he says. "Not all of them I'm proud of. But quite a few of them are great. I feel very blessed."

Taylor played in Parker's trio with Chris Lopes on the 2012 release Bright Light in Winter (Delmark). He's also continued to work with Mazurek semi-regularly, including in the Chicago Underground Duo and on the 2014 album Pharoah & the Underground (Delmark) with saxophonist Pharoah Sanders. But by the time of the initial Good Days sessions in 2018, Taylor says, it'd been around 15 years since he'd played with Mazurek and Parker in the same group.

Josh Johnson (second from right) replaces Noel Kupersmith in the current version of the Chicago Underground Quartet, with Rob Mazurek, Jeff Parker, and Chad Taylor. - COURTESY ASTRAL SPIRITS RECORDS
  • Josh Johnson (second from right) replaces Noel Kupersmith in the current version of the Chicago Underground Quartet, with Rob Mazurek, Jeff Parker, and Chad Taylor.
  • Courtesy Astral Spirits Records

The three of them hadn't made any plans to record, but LA producer Chris Schlarb—a longtime fan of the Chicago Underground—brought them together. While organizing a session for his band, he asked Taylor to play drums. Schlarb knew he wouldn't have the budget to pay Taylor his usual rate, so he offered to give Taylor free studio time to record a new Chicago Underground Quartet record.

"I was like, what? Um . . . maybe?" Taylor says, his voice rising incredulously. "To be honest, I thought Jeff was not going to be into it. But he was. And we made it happen."

The original Chicago Underground Quartet was a working band that gigged together and practiced all the time. Good Days arose from an impromptu session with little rehearsal. With Kupersmith retired, Taylor and Parker decided to bring in Johnson. The recording was so casual, and organized so quickly, that Johnson wasn't sure whether he'd be playing saxophone or keyboards till he showed up. When he did appear, Parker recalls, Mazurek looked at him in confusion and said, "Where's your bass?" Parker laughs. "Me and Chad are like, 'No man, he plays keyboards.'"

You wouldn't know from listening to the album that the performers weren't clear on the instrumental configuration until everyone showed up. As they did on the first Chicago Underground Quartet album 19 years before, they stroll around the universe of jazz like they're walking through their backyard. Taylor's soul-funk composition "Batida" gives Parker a chance to play some badass spaced-out blues licks. Parker wrote "Good Days," which first appeared on Bright Light in Winter, for Mazurek, but the cornetist couldn't make that session; finally able to record the tune, he turns in a searching, wounded solo over Johnson's ambient keyboard washes. In a complementary turn, Mazurek wrote "Strange Wing" (a commission by the 2016 Novara Jazz Festival) with Parker in mind. It's a mellow fuzak groove that drifts unexpectedly toward free spiritual exploration and back again.

Part of what's so engaging and inspirational about Good Days is that it feels like such a natural continuation of the band's freewheeling spirit—something that easily could've ended up being lightning in a bottle, never captured again after the 2001 album. "The collaboration is the same beautiful open situation as when we started," Mazurek says. "Of course we are more mature as musicians and humans now. The intention is always strong."

Experimental jazz isn't a path anybody follows expecting to be comfortable. In a lot of ways, it makes more sense to stop and get a job as a plumber, with a steady income and maybe health insurance. "It's certainly a challenge to live a creative life," Mazurek says. But Taylor, Mazurek, and Parker have kept at it, creating art that's surprising and meaningful and generally awesome. "The main thing I love about [Taylor and Mazurek] is they're both just so open," Parker says. "Both of those guys will try anything musically."

The last song on Chicago Underground Quartet is a Mazurek composition called "Nostalgia." At first, it sounds about like what you'd expect from a piece called "Nostalgia"—slow, ambient, romantic, with some cheesy synth warbling. Then, after about a minute and a half, Taylor drops in a crisp transition on the drums, seemingly setting a new beat but actually transitioning the track into disintegrating, chaotic spasms—drums, guitar, and horn chitter across empty space at one another until the nostalgia overtakes them again. The track goes back and forth like that—romantic evocations of a lost past alternating with fragmented cries to the future—until the music fades out altogether.

There's a couple minutes of silence, and then the band comes roaring back for a ten-second blast of an amphetamine bop head. It's an exuberant end to an exuberant record, as well as a declaration that jazz—and music making in general—is about right now, even when it's also about the past. It's as though the quartet knew they had more to play, and that they'd be ready to take up the tune again—even if it took them almost two decades to do it.  v

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