Who says you can’t come home again? Though he currently lives in Texas, Rob Mazurek remains closely identified with Chicago. The 54-year-old multi-instrumentalist, composer, improviser, and multimedia artist grew up in Naperville and right out of high school moved into the city, where he attended the Bloom School of Jazz and learned on the bandstand from local luminaries such as Jodie Christian and Lin Halliday. Since the mid-1990s he has maintained the Chicago Underground Duo with drummer Chad Taylor, and they’ve kept the Chicago Underground name (sometimes as a trio, quartet, or orchestra) even though Taylor long ago moved to the east coast and Mazurek spent eight years in Brazil.
The city is encoded in Mazurek’s musical DNA, and he’ll celebrate his early achievements here as well as his current work in two separate sets at the Chicago Jazz Festival. Thursday evening he’ll revisit one of his early compositions as a member of Mike Reed’s The City Was Yellow ensemble, and on Friday afternoon he’ll perform a set with one of his own newest groups, Desert Encrypts Vol. 1.
Rob Mazurek’s Desert Encrypts Vol. 1
Fri 8/30, 3-4 PM, Von Freeman Pavilion
“Flamingos Dancing on Luminescent Moonbeams,” which appears on the City Was Yellow project’s set list, is the second track on the Chicago Underground’s 1998 debut, Playground. On that album Mazurek first broke loose from his early grounding in mid-20th-century modern jazz, and the influence of figures such as Art Farmer is evident in the piece’s lyrical cornet melody and loose, sauntering groove. Those features periodically recur on 2019’s Desert Encrypts Vol. 1 (Astral Spirits), the self-titled debut by Mazurek’s latest quartet, but they emerge from elaborate, interlocking structures and passages of protean free improvisation, and they share space with spacey soundscapes and cosmic poetry.
The musicians on the album—Taylor on drums, Mazurek on piccolo trumpet and electronics, Kris Davis on piano, and Ingebrigt Håker Flaten on double bass—move fluidly between passages of crystalline clarity and roiling turbulence. They refined their chemistry during intensive rehearsals that preceded the August 2018 unveiling of the quartet at the first iteration of a three-day annual multidisciplinary art event, also named Desert Encrypts, in Mazurek’s current home base of Marfa.
Located in the high desert an hour from Mexico and three hours from the nearest airport, Marfa nurtures an artistic community out of all proportion with its size (population 1,772) and remoteness. It’s home to two major art foundations and a permanent installation by minimalist artist Donald Judd.
“The whole atmosphere is based on art,” Mazurek says. “Some of the most interesting artists, thinkers, and makers in the world live and work here full- and part-time. The community in general is very accepting. They want to know what you’re doing, and it’s easier than in a million-person city, where sometimes it’s harder to make those personal connections.”
It’s just the kind of place for Mazurek to get things done. “I wake up in the morning and I make a morning sound—morning drones is what I call them—on my synthesizer in the music room,” he says. “Then I make the coffee. Then I’ll practice for a couple hours; then I’ll go out to the painting studio for a couple hours, work on paintings that I’m working on or sculptures. Then I’ll come back in and compose for a couple hours.” Because cosmic themes loom large in Mazurek’s compositions, he especially appreciates the desert sky. “You also have a designated black-sky area, so you see the Milky Way every night,” he says. “The sky goes on forever, and the sunrises and sunsets are so spectacular every day.”
Desert Encrypts Vol. 1 belongs to a trilogy of records released this summer that reflect Mazurek’s wide-ranging interests. Love Waves Ecstatic Charge is a set of explosive electronic music, some of which was used in Lee Anne Schmitt’s The Farnsworth Scores, an experimental film about an extraordinary Mies van der Rohe house in Plano, Illinois, that renegotiates the relationship between interior structures and the outside environment. The third album, Psychotropic Electric Eel Dreams IV, is an eerily atmospheric long-form work that combines synthetic sounds with recordings of the emissions of electric eels. Forever restless, Mazurek plans to record a volume of “galactic parables” with his Exploding Star Orchestra in Chicago prior to his appearances at the Jazz Festival. v