Start with Chicago trumpeter/electronician Rob Mazurek. He’s cool; he’s played on albums by Tortoise and Stereolab and Isotope 217 and all those cool Chicago people whose names critics drop like breadcrumbs so we can find our way out of the woods. Mazurek started a workshop for like-minded young post-jazzbos like himself at the Green Mill on Chicago’s North Side — that’s the coolest place in the entire world. Rob Mazurek is undeniably cool.
So you have him and you add percussionist Chad Taylor and they become the Chicago Underground Duo. That sounds cool. Add bass player Noel Kupersmith and they’re suddenly the Chicago Underground Trio. Extra cool. Here’s an ultra-cool move: they added a guitarist named Jeff Parker and still called themselves the Chicago Underground Trio for one album. But now that Parker is apparently a full-fledged cast member, they are the Chicago Underground Quartet. Excellent history, great name, completely cool.
Still not convinced of the coolness? Hang on for more evidence: 1. This record was produced by John McEntire. (And we ALL know who he is.) 2. The album’s total length is only about 41 minutes. (Roots move. Classy.) 3. All four members get individual writing credits, and the free-jazz piece is credited to the group. 4. The packaging is super-minimal: shiny bronze paper with silver lettering, impossible to read but oh so pretty. 5. They’re on Thrill Jockey, for god’s sake.
So now that we’ve established how cool this release by the Chicago Underground Quartet is, the only conclusion we can reach is how uncool I am for not falling for it head over heels like a good critic. What’s wrong with me if I’m left flat by this ultra-stylish indie-cred-out-the-ass release? I don’t know.
I’m not completely out of the loop. I can appreciate the fact that all these guys are excellent musicians with big jazz ears. Mazurek can go from Freddie Hubbard-type bumblebee hovering to On the Corner-era Miles at the drop of a porkpie hat, and his techno touches are what set this group apart from all the other quartets. Taylor’s drumming is muscular when it needs to be and quiet as a mouse at other times. Parker’s sound is huge here, whether he’s playing complex lines (on which he sometimes veers into Steve Howe’s work with Yes territory) or chiming chords. And Kupersmith is solid if unspectacular. They’re probably four of the tightest and most precise young jazz musicians working today . . . and they’re all in the same quartet!
So it’s not the musicianship that’s lacking here. Nor is it the CUQ’s attempt to create a new kind of music with the jazz and the electronics and the occasional instrumental-rock feel. That part I like too, if only because it’ll cause moldy-fig jazz critics absolute fits to have to review. So is there a piece missing? Or is it just my uncoolness getting in my own way?
I’ll just say it: the CUQ played it safe this album, and it didn’t pay off. Nothing here really tries very hard to make an impression, even the supposedly “free” track, “Sink, Charge, Fixture”. Mazurek’s opener, “Tunnel Chrome”, makes use of repeated guitar arpeggios for the others to solo over and interact with, which is pretty cool; but then they use the Exact Same Trick on Track three, Taylor’s “A Re-occurring Dream” except with an angular slinky 12-bar figure. (Another track credited to Mazurek, titled “Welcome”, bears a suspicious resemblance to parts of John Coltrane’s beautiful “Welcome” off of Kulu Se Mama. Hmmm.) Parker had the chance to come up with some interesting contrasts by titling his pieces “Four in the Afternoon” and “Three in the Morning”, but they’re completely unrelated and don’t really stand out from each other either. It just doesn’t seem very Underground to make a jazz album (or post-jazz or whatever this is) that reveals so little about the participants . . . but maybe I’m not cool enough to understand that either.
When this CD is over, I hit play again, hoping to discover what I missed about it, looking for a way to understand the vibe I’m obviously missing. But no dice. I’m left out in the cold by this cool album by this cool band.