Where Chicago Underground Almost Meets Prog

Chicago Underground DuoLocus (Northern Spy, 2014)

Chicago Underground Duo - LocusIn my head, the veteran rock band Djam Karet defines a space that mixes prog-rock thinking with jam-band improvising and electronica’s love of looping. It’s not full-blast prog rock with 17/8 time signatures, but it goes well with a prog/jazz bouquet, kind of a sub-sub-genre all its own.

And for an instant during a listen to Locus recently I realized Rob Mazurek‘s Chicago Underground Duo fits in there, too.

It was during the track “Kabuki,” with its easy melodic loop (electronics resembling a thumb piano) against thumping cross-rhythms and a lead played on tweaked-out synthesizers (or possibly synthed-out flute). The looping, the melody, the driven energy in the drum kit — it struck me that these elements fit snugly within the Djam Karet equations. They could have been the ones playing this, I thought.

Granted, about 24 hours earlier I’d sat down to a good of Djam Karet (who are still putting out albums after 30 years, something I’ll have to discuss in a future post), so the sound was in my head. Maybe it was like a dream that repeats events from your day. But the similarities kept gnawing at me through the rest of the album. The title track, “Locus,” is a synth-driven bit of groove electronica that matches some of Djam Karet’s more synth-driven work, especially the gloopy, sparse beat that opens the track.

Hey, the prog element might really be in there. As Rob Mazurek’s influences widen, so does the scope of the Chicago Underground Duo/Trio/Whatever. (The number of people varies from album to album.) Urban electronics are the bedrock this time around, including a ubiquitous synth bass backing the two band members: Mazurek on trumpet and flute, Chad Taylor on drums. “Blink Out” stacks the electronics thickly, a grooving backdrop behind two overdubbed Mazurek trumpets that blast out in high-register jazz ecstasy.

“Yaa Yaa Kole” provides an outlet for Mazurek’s Sao Paolo fascination, providing layers of percussion underneath puffy afrobeat horn phrases. “Dante” uses synth bass alongside bright trumpet to produce a soul-jazz sound that’s at once nostalgic and modern. And “Boss” is simply a snappy melody with a solid beat — a catchy rock instrumental, in a sense, but still a highlight and a showcase for Taylor.

A lot of ingredients have always gone into the Chicago Underground. Whether Mazurek has heard of Djam Karet or not, I’ll stick to thinking they’ve found common ground on Locus.

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