Monday, May 07, 2007

Chicago Underground Chronicle

Chicago Underground Trio
Delmark DVD

Chicago has a history of avant-garde jazz that rivals, perhaps even surpasses, that of New York. There is still a vital scene in the Windy City, which is often documented on Delmark Records. While only bassist Jason Ajemian still lives in the city (according to liner notes Peter Margasak), the Chicago Underground Trio clearly have strong ties to the city and its experimental jazz tradition, as captured live in Chicago’s German Cultural Center on the new Delmark DVD (and CD) Chronicle.

More than a concert film, Director Raymond Salvatore Harmon creates visual distortions, first by projecting color and light against the walls of the performance space, and than layering more over the actual recorded performances, in post-production. As the performances build in intensity, the colors become stronger, exploding into fractals in a kaleidoscopic blur.

The set opens with “Initiation,” a long bass prelude from Ajemian, imposed over the only outside visuals—what appears to be the view from a rural road shot from a moving vehicle. The tune demarcations are a bit arbitrary, but when drummer Chad Taylor comes in, it signals the start of “Resistance.” It is nearly the nine minute mark before the full trio is heard, as Rob Mazurek’s cornet enters, and Taylor switches to marimba and vibes. The Underground might be freely improvising, but this is not an abrasive set. Indeed, Taylor’s concluding statement on vibes is delicate and soothing.

“Power” is the longest track, and could be album in itself, continuing with the moody atmosphere of “Resistance’s” conclusion. Around the twenty minute mark Mazurek has a muted solo that wouldn’t be out of place in a film noir soundtrack. Around the twenty five minute mark he comes back with open horn for some downright bluesy statements. Taylor then has an intriguing feature on mbira, which may sound exotic, but not at all scary. “Power” morphs again around the thirty-fourth minute, as the electronics kick in, overwhelming the musicians in the mix. It might be the most intimidating sequence for those just getting their feet wet in freer forms of jazz, before Mazurek’s cornet eventually leads the trio out of the electronic maelstrom.

For those open to it, there are some very exciting musical moments in Chronicle. It ends on a particularly accessible note, “Transcendence,” which settles into a pulsing groove and features some passionate cornet work from Mazurek.

Video documents of jazz are important, because there is something about seeing artists play at a high level that hits people at a visceral level. What is interesting about Harmon’s effects is that they intrigue by revealing and obscuring in equal measure. At various points, Harmon’s split screen and super-imposed video create the effect of an army of musicians on screen, while at other points, musicians seem to disappear and re-materialize before our eyes. For a group like the Underground the question is always how adventurous do you need to be to enjoy their music. In the case of Chronicle, if you have reasonably open ears, you will enjoy it.
(Corrections made 5/16)