Friday, June 25, 2010

CD review: Chicago Underground Duo - Boca Negra

Chicago Underground Duo
Boca Negra
(Thrill Jockey)

Bill Dixon's death made me think about the Chicago Underground Duo, specifically their Boca Negra album that came out a few months ago. Dixon had collaborated with CUD member Rob Mazurek in his other project, the Exploding Star Orchestra, and his playing reminded me a bit of Dixon's anyway, so I thought it was time to pull that disc out again and write about it.

Glad I did because it sounds even stronger than it did a few months ago. Maybe I just needed time to get to know it a little bit better, and listen to it with a different set of ears or expectations. The Chicago Underground Duo, which is completed by drummer/percussionist Chad Taylor can't really be listened to the same way that you listen to jazz. They're a little more AMM than ECM. They create sound sculptures that should be explored more for their sonic architecture than for the way Mazurek blows and Taylor cooks. "Left Hand of Darkness" has some weird electronics, coupled with some pitch bending and tremolo, while the trumpet gets bathed in echo. Two songs later on "Quantum Eye," things get all wobbly and trippy, like the Duo is playing underwater.

What can be really disarming about Boca Negra is how several songs sound like the work of more than two musicians. "Confliction" has a bass riff (preprogrammed on keys or samplers, presumably) with drums following along with it, and the whole thing almost sounds like a Soft Machine piece. "Spy on the Floor" does sound like a riff to a spy movie theme, with a lot of bass and drums, pausing frequently for a vibes breakdown in the middle of it. In a cover of Ornette Coleman's "Broken Shadows" Taylor is actually dueting with himself, since his loose drumming backs up the vibes, which state the melody. His free drumming sounds like it could have been played first, as he sang the future vibes part in his head. Or maybe he played the vibes first, leaving enough room for free drumming. It sounds like overthinking, but actually these questions make the piece, and in turn the whole album, a little more compelling as they draw you in.

Some of the album gets pretty repetitive. The synthetic loop of "Hermeto" gets to be a bit much, but when Taylor and Mazurek groove on mbira and trumpet duet ("Laughing with the Sun") and distort both instruments, they added sound manipulation keeps the scene from getting drab.

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