Click here to [close]

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Chicago Underground Quartet – Good Days (Astral Spirit, 2020) ****

By Daniel Böker

At the end of the nineties of the last century I discovered a lot of new music. New to me at least. I am not quite sure how exactly but somewhere along the road I came across Tortoise, I came across thrill jockey as a label and I came across someone called Rob Mazurek -and well they all are combined. In the end I had bought some albums I still enjoy this music that I couldn’t pin down at the time. (e.g. Isotop 217, Brokeback, and on a different page The Sea and Cake) A lot of it was connected to something called Chicago Underground. The Underground Duo, Trio, Quartet, Orchestra. I was blown away at the time.

So now almost 20 years later, I know a little more about music and about jazz and/or improvised music. I followed Rob Mazurek’s journey through the years sometimes eagerly, sometimes loosely.  (Two recommendations from the last time: Watch his quarantine concert on youtube and listen to the Desert Encrypts Vol.1. – which leads directly to the album I wanted to write about in this review. Maybe I wouldn’t have realized it that easy but the liner notes by Peter Margasak point out that the track “Unique Spiral” is based on the same composition as “Encrypts 37” from Desert Encrypts Vol 1. (So much for the connection.)

The new Chicago Underground Quartet is the old Quartet except for Noel Kupersmith, who quit playing music as far as I know. But the trio is still a quartet because Josh Johnson joined them on synth bass, organ and piano.

Listening to the new album, Good Days, brings forth the question if this reunion is something like the reunion of any group in music business. Well, first of all it can’t be for the money. This we all know. But is it just a simple nostalgia that is being nurtured here? Does the sound of the Chicago Underground Quartet fit into 2020 or did the quartet change enough to fit into this new time?

Listening for the first time I had quite a nostalgic felling. The sound of the record fits perfectly with the sound of the earlier records.

It is the continuation of the warm and open sound that the Chicago Underground has been creating for a long time. However, the new record fits in perfectly without just feeding the nostalgic instincts. It takes the sound into our current time, and the gentle openness, without building a wall of sound, is something that calms one's mind in these troubled times. As well, Rob Mazurek's trumpet sounds as light and clear as it ever did with the Chicago Underground.

The first track (the only cover) “Orgasm” starts with drum and bass (this phrase is not an accident). Then the trumpet enters in and we have a groovy, funky movement. A minute in, the drum and bass loosen the grip on the straight beat and the whole piece opens up in different directions with all four (the organ and the guitar are in there as well) turning the volume and speed up without loosing ear-contact (if I might say so). After approximately four minutes, the beat slowly returns and dances underneath the trumpet, guitar and synth sounds. A beautiful piece of music and a good introduction to  the rest of the album.

Good Days continues in a similar manner with 'Strange Wings' (a composition by Rob Mazurek). In the beginning there is a nice gentle moving beat with the trumpet playing a soulful melody. The guitar follows and plays a clear melody with a lot of space to breath and sink in. Sink in the sound of the synth, the beat. The listener gets the time to sink in because the Underground Quartet takes its time to open this track. It is a low movement and an all-in-all hypnotic track. I like it a lot.

I could go on track by track. But I think these examples show the way the music is heading.

An exception is the seventh track 'Lomé', which is a drum or percussion solo. That’s something I cannot recall from the early records.

Overall, there seems to be only subtle changes in the sound of the quartet, but it is not the nostalgia that keeps me listening to this album. It is rather that the sound is still fresh and I really enjoy the way the Chicago Underground Quartet moves from melody to free improvisation from almost hypnotic beats to more open sounds without losing it completely.



Keith said...

Great review! John Herndon of Tortoise and Mazurek's Exploding Orchestra finally released his first full-length A Grape Dope recording just last week, for some more adjacent listening.