When the Chicago Underground Duo plays jazz, what's important is not the number of musicians, but the sound they create. And the duo—Rob Mazurek on cornet and keyboards, and Chad Taylor on drums and vibraphone—make some serious sound.
"Some people have told us, 'You guys sound like five people up there,' so that's cool," said Mazurek in a recent interview. "But we're really just trying to orchestrate something that sounds both magical and interesting to us and, we hope, to the audience.
"It's all about the orchestration, not how many instruments you use."
Mazurek speaks easily of space, texture, density and spirituality. He's not so concerned with chords and notes and tempos, or who takes what solo. "Whether we're playing a composed piece or improvising, I play something, and Chad responds, or vice versa, and it turns into something else simultaneously."
The duo's just-released fifth album, Boca Negra, on Thrill Jockey Records, includes contemplative ambient compositions, out-there free jazz and the hard bop that initially wooed Mazurek as a teenage cornet player, growing up under the influence of Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Sun Ra, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Bill Dixon in the Chicago suburbs.
The duo is on the road promoting the new CD, and will return to Tucson for a gig on Wednesday, Feb. 10, at Solar Culture Gallery.
"We haven't played out West in six or seven years now, so we're itching to get back there," Mazurek said.
The last time the duo was in Tucson, they also played at Solar Culture, and while the audience could have been larger, Mazurek and Taylor gave a performance that was nothing short of revelatory.
The duo is part of the loose umbrella group the Chicago Underground Collective, which also has recorded and released albums as a trio, quartet and orchestra. The collective also has ties with groups such as Tortoise, Isotope 217, Sticks and Stones, Brokeback and Tigersmilk, and sometimes shares or trades musicians with them.
In addition to playing in various Chicago Underground projects, Taylor also performs with Iron and Wine and the guitarist Marc Ribot.
Mazurek splits his time among Chicago Underground projects, his quintet and three other groups he leads: the Exploding Star Orchestra, Mandarin Movie and the São Paulo Underground, in which he explores the union of avant-garde jazz and Brazilian music.
He also lives about half of the year in São Paulo, and it was in that city's Studio Rocha that he and Taylor recorded Boca Negra, the first Chicago Underground Duo album recorded outside of Chicago.
According to a Thrill Jockey press release, the term boca negra (literally: black mouth) was coined in Tenerife, the largest of the Canary Islands—it refers to the mouth of the volcano Teide and also symbolizes the concept of an endless stream of information.
Mazurek said he and Taylor have been performing as a duo for 14 years. He said their musical communication never gets tired and always seems fresh.
"We both feel that not only is there a musical communication, but a spiritual connection and understanding that goes way beyond words or music," Mazurek said. "Every time we get together to play, whether we haven't seen each other for a couple of months or we're on the road together playing night after night, it's like the first time, but it's also like we've been playing together every day forever."
Usually, Mazurek plays cornet, keyboards and electronics, while Taylor handles percussion and vibraphone, sometimes simultaneously.
"But we always surprise each other with something new or different," Mazurek said.
For instance, when the duo began creating the music on Boca Negra, Taylor had some new tricks up his sleeve, Mazurek said.
"Well, first was the mbira (African thumb piano), which Chad had been studying the last couple of years. But it was a surprise for me when he brought that sound to our work. On the new record, there are four or five compositions that utilize the thumb piano in beautiful ways, using filtering and analog delay. It's really an otherworldly sound.
"What was also interesting was that for the first time, Chad did some programming on the computer. For the first four records we've done, I pretty much dealt with the electronics, but for this one, Chad started taking a large part in that."
After the modest successes and notoriety enjoyed by the various incarnations of the Chicago Underground Collective in the last decade and a half, it's tempting to wonder whether they are still really underground.
Mazurek responded, "What really is 'underground'? Anyone playing challenging music these days, especially during the last 10 years, maybe forever, knows that it's becoming more and more difficult to eke out a living doing what you love, and to be both musically and personally fulfilled. If you can do that, carve out your own niche, you're lucky.
"And if you look at the amount of people who are interested in these recordings compared to the number of all the popular recordings being sold ... I mean, we're not even selling tens of thousands of records, but there are a few labels who support this kind of music, and some people who listen to it. So to be able to play for them and with such amazing fellow musicians, I feel like a rich man. I think that definitely falls under the auspices of underground."