Making Beautiful Music Together

The story of how Chad Taylor became a drummer has shades of Shine. In 1992 Taylor, who grew up in Atrium Village near Wells and Division, was a freshman at Millikin University in Decatur. He was on the home stretch of a course he’d started at age eight, studying classical guitar. But he no longer wanted to be there. “It got to the point where I’d be giving a recital in front of all these people and I’d forget the tune or I’d forget the key and I’d just run off the stage,” he says. But unlike Shine’s poor hero, David Helfgott, who never recovered from his freak-out, Taylor left for New York to study jazz drumming at the New School.

Cornetist Rob Mazurek, Taylor’s partner in the Chicago Underground Duo, started out playing hard bop, and has since taken some turns that were almost as abrupt as Taylor’s. But with the recent release of 12¡ of Freedom (Thrill Jockey), the two have rather amazingly ended up on the same page. Both ventured out in the 80s seeking careers in conservative, tightly delineated fields; together they’ve arrived at an organic amalgam light-years from any traditional starting point. While the music on their new recording might nominally be called free jazz, it draws from a broad palette whose colors are informed by their zigzagging musical journeys.

Taylor and Mazurek first met in 1990, but half a decade passed before they would work together seriously. Taylor was playing jazz with local legend Lin Halliday, but he still considered drumming a hobby. Mazurek, now 33, was earning his meager bread playing in clubs like Faces and the Get Me High six nights a week. Mazurek had moved to the city from Naperville in 1983, fresh out of high school. “I had to get out of the suburbs and I wanted to play jazz,” he says. Unfortunately his ambition outweighed his resources, and he spent a couple years sleeping on the floor at the Bloom School of Jazz, where he paid for classes by doing odd jobs, from cleaning to transcribing music. Though his education there was a good experience, he says, it closed his ears too: “We never did any free playing there. We just worked on stuff [David Bloom] liked, which was basically modal and Blue Note stuff.”

Mazurek’s lean years eventually paid off. His solid hard-bop quartet, with drummer George Fludas, secured a deal with the Scottish label Hep; the label issued three fine albums, two of which feature tenor whiz kid Eric Alexander. But in the winter of 1995–the year Hep released Mazurek’s second album, Badlands–he met guitarist Jeff Parker. They hit it off immediately, and Parker’s interest in free improvisation and experimentation–he played with AACM vets the New Horizons Ensemble and would later join the avant-rock group Tortoise–swiftly inspired Mazurek.

Around the same time a high school friend of Taylor’s, bassist Matt Lux, was also playing with Parker–sometimes in jam sessions that Mazurek organized at the Green Mill on Sunday afternoons. Taylor joined in over Christmas break, and in early 1996, he, Mazurek, Parker, bassist Chris Lopes, and trombonist Sara P. Smith began recording the first Chicago Underground Orchestra album, Playground, at Idful. Hep honcho Alastair Robertson was put off by its exploratory tendencies and rejected it, but the local Delmark label gladly issued it in early 1998.

A week after finally finishing that record, just after New Year’s in 1997, Mazurek and Taylor impulsively decided to record some duo material they’d been working on. “We called Mickey Greenberg [at Lunar Cabaret] at ten that night and borrowed the club’s drum kit,” says Mazurek. The lack of harmony instruments certainly invited freer expression, but even beyond that the difference between the recordings made that night and those cut just days earlier is startling: 12¡ of Freedom’s mix of lusty lyricism, abstract textures, and minimalist composition is a radical departure from Playground’s edgy freebop.

In the summer of ’97, Taylor decided to come back to Chicago for good. “I can do so many different types of things here,” he says. “In New York you either have to do this or that.” Taylor had in fact managed to do both this and that in New York, playing free music with a group called the Life Ensemble and hard bop with vets Junior Mance and Lou Donaldson and sterling newcomer Mark Turner, but he still felt better here.

Since then, Taylor and Mazurek have sort of exploded onto the local independent-music scene. For that they’re both quick to thank Tortoise, with whom they’ve formed a sort of mutual admiration society. Mazurek plays on Tortoise’s TNT; the Chicago Underground Trio–Mazurek and Taylor with bassist Noel Kupersmith–opened for the band on seven European dates this summer; and Mazurek and Lux play in the abstractly funky Isotope 217 with Parker, Smith, and Tortoise percussionists John Herndon and Dan Bitney. The connection has also led to casual collaborations with other experimental rockers. Taylor appears on the forthcoming solo album by Sam Prekop of the Sea and Cake, and Mazurek guests on Gastr del Sol’s Camoufleur and the terrific new Loren MazzaCane Connors-Alan Licht ensemble album, Hoffman Estates (Drag City), which was produced by Jim O’Rourke. “I always thought a record should have one vibe,” says Mazurek. “I never thought that each tune could be completely different and that if you sequence it the right way it can be ten billion times more interesting than just hearing the same combination of instruments for a whole record.”

The duo’s involvement with rock musicians doesn’t mean that they’ve given up on jazz–their work together is unquestionably jazz based and Taylor continues to play regularly with Ernest Dawkins and Fred Anderson–but they’ve rejected what they perceive as artificial boundaries between the genres. “I saw Johnny [Herndon], a rock drummer, playing jazz gigs and sounding just as good as the so-called free-jazz drummers,” says Taylor. “I started hanging out with him and discovered that he had all this knowledge, and it knocked down a lot of barriers I had about jazz musicians and rock musicians.”

“It’s all become one thing,” says Mazurek. “Instead of thinking, ‘Now I’m going to play free with Chad,’ or, ‘Now I’m going to play rock grooves with Isotope,’ now every time we do something it’s just a musical event.”

Those events keep piling up: in January, Delmark will release Possible Cube, the debut from the Chicago Underground Trio, and last week Isotope 217 started recording a new album for release this spring. The Underground Duo celebrates the release of 12¡ of Freedom Friday at the Velvet Lounge, and Isotope 217 will play new material Tuesday at HotHouse.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Chad Taylor and Rob Mazurek photo by Nathan Mandell.