There came a point in the progression of twentieth century Jazz music when it began to intersect with the music of the minimalist contemporary compositions of people like Phillip Glass, Steve Reich, and John Cage. But Jazz and Jazz musicians being what they are, it wasn't ever going to be anything more than a visit to absorb items of interest that could be incorporated into their means of expression. Jazz can never be as devoid of sound as the minimalists or as structured; it is all about textures and flow after all. So although you will never hear Jazz pieces that sound like a John Cage composition, the scraping of form and structure that he and the others experimented with most definitely made their presence felt in the Jazz world.
While the contemporary composers were doing their thing in New York City, it seems only fitting that the New Jazz was finding its home in Chicago, the long time home to African American music and culture in the northern part of the United States. In the days of racial segregation in the United States, the state of Illinois marked the "The Colour Line." Once you were in Illinois, and all points north, segregation was at least technically no longer legal. Chicago was the first major metropolitan area with jobs for those who were willing to do them. The stockyards didn't care what you looked like as long as you had a strong stomach and didn't mind the smell. Blues and Jazz musicians from the South looking for music work began migrating to Chicago as early as the thirties when speakeasies were always in need of bands, but it was the 1950's when things really began to hop for the Blues and Jazz. The performers composing and playing throughout Chicago in the 1950's and 60's would read like a Who's Who of the Jazz aristocracy. Charles Mingus, Cannonball Adderley, Art Blakey, and a young John Coltrane to name a few: the list would run longer than this review if I let it.
As the 1960's wound down and attitudes were being liberated in music everywhere, jazz was no exception. The Chicago Art Ensemble is probably the most famous name to come out of that time that's still out there playing, but other groupings have appeared to make their mark as well. One that's still going strong is Rob Mazurek's Chicago Underground.
Sometimes a quartet, sometime a solo project, in his latest incarnation Rob has teamed up with long time percussionist and drum partner Chad Taylor, and South American born, Chicago based double bassist Jason Ajemian. Ironically enough, Rob himself now lives in San Paulo, Brazil. Delmark Records has released Chicago Underground Trio's latest collaboration Chronicle as both a DVD and a CD.
The recording is a mixture of live performance, overdub remixing in the studio, and what used to be called Video Art. Obviously the CD will only contain the audio, but as I'm also reviewing the DVD, the visual component plays an important role. Filmmaker Raymond Salvatore Harmon filmed the live elements of the trio's recording session with the band set up against a white screen and wearing all white clothing. He projected a series of colours and video footage of scenery recorded from a moving vehicle against the screen and the musicians, and then filmed the result.
The piece Chronicle is divided into six parts, with each part representing (in my interpretation) a stage in the story of a person's travel towards a type of spiritual awakening. "Initiation," the first piece, represents the decision to set out upon that journey and the introduction to the rigors of what can be expected on the journey.
"Resistance" and "Power," the second and third pieces, respectively, are pretty much explained by the titles. Think of all the factors that would offer resistance to any person in today's world trying to accomplish a voyage of this type, and the varieties of power that would be needed to overcome them.
At some point along the way in this type of progression, a person will usually run into a "Crisis" that is their turning point. It usually takes the form of pent up old emotions being released for a period of days, if not weeks, and can be a pretty ugly and scary experience. But it always leads into the stage of "Transformation" where you become aware of the changes you've gone through.
Your personal Chronicle completes itself when you have "Transcended" all the bits and pieces of your former self. It's the stage that will probably last you the rest of your life as you continue the process that you began with your initial steps towards change.
Improvised Jazz at this level is so far beyond the music we normally associate with the genre that it is impossible to critique it by the same standards as other Jazz, let alone other music. You have to react to it almost as the musicians are reacting to each other in the moment. Holding on to the feelings that are generated and piled on you one after another is an impossible task, but what you can try to do is what I've done: Find your own framework that you can hang the composition on.
The titles are the titles that Chicago Underground Trio has given the six pieces that make up Chronicle, but the interpretation of what it is all about, based upon listening and watching the DVD, is my own. A true test of this piece is not what one person's opinion is, but whether or not many people have similar interpretations.
As usual the sound and video quality are impeccable on the Delmark DVD. You have a choice of DTS and 5.1 surround sound and either wide screen or normal for viewing. I chose to go with the wide screen to try and get as much of the imagery as possible in the picture.
Chronicle is an example of both the wonder of free form improvised Jazz at its finest, and a daring combination of the visual and musical arts to make a single theme come alive for its audience. I was able to come out of the experience with an understanding that may or may not have been what the musicians had in mind, but if they've done their job properly, it will at least be within spitting distance. For anyone who is interested and willing to make the effort, this is fascinating experience and I highly recommend it.