At a time when the world is mired in divisiveness, a time of wall-building and fear-mongering, it takes visionaries to build bridges rather than tear them down. “This is protest music,” insists Rob Mazurek. “It always has been. That’s why it’s called ‘Underground’ - it’s not just called that for fun. We really believe in it. The world has become so homogenized and leans so far towards the right, and this music expresses complete freedom and lack of borders. Our music is all about the obliteration of any kind of oppression, the tearing down of any kind of wall - freedom and equality, both sonically and spiritually.”
For the last two decades the Chicago Underground Duo Rob Mazurek and Chad Taylor have created music meant to open minds and explore alien territory.
Now, on A Night Walking Through Mirrors, they’ve created a new Transatlantic partnership in the form of Chicago / London Underground, inviting a pair of renowned British improvisers Alexander Hawkins and John Edwards into the creative fold. The result is an expansive sonic adventure whose every unexpected note and alchemical reaction runs counter to the limited imaginations ruling social media name-calling and clannish provincialism.
“We love their playing and thought they’d be a nice complement to what we do,” Mazurek explains. When it comes to the rare occasions when he and Taylor do bring other musicians into the fold, he continues, “The only criteria is people who are completely open to anything, no matter how outlandish or crazy the idea is. They just have to be 100 percent into the moment and what we’re doing.”
Hawkins and Edwards are newcomers to one of Mazurek’s longest-running musical partnerships. “We’re sonic and spiritual brothers,” Mazurek says of his profound partnership with Taylor. “It’s a special relationship, one of those cosmic things where it just works. It’s amazing that we’ve kept it going this long and hopefully we’ll continue for another 20 years.”
The album’s title, A Night Walking Through Mirrors, is an evocative fit for this exploratory set, capturing the sense of alluring disorientation, of sympathetic worlds upon worlds echoing into infinity. “It really felt like we would be playing and somebody would take a left turn and we’d be in another dimension,” Mazurek recalls. “Another person would take a right turn and we’d be in yet another dimension, but everybody was right there. It really did feel like a night spent walking through mirrors in that respect.”.
It takes an unusual band to make news out of the blues, and The Microscopic Septet deliver a gripping investigation of the form on Been Up So Long It Looks Like Down to Me: The Micros Play the Blues, which continues the band’s brilliant resurgence.
Crazy times call for outrageous music, and few jazz ensembles are better prepared to meet the surreality of this reality-TV-era than the antic and epically creative Ed Palermo Big Band. The New Jersey saxophonist, composer and arranger is best known for his celebrated performances interpreting the ingenious compositions of Frank Zappa, an extensive body of work documented on previous Cuneiform albums.
But his fifth project for the label, The Great Un-American Songbook Volumes 1 & 2, is a love letter to the rockers who ruled the AM and FM airwaves in the 1960s via successive waves of the British Invasion. Featuring largely the same stellar cast of players as last year’s gloriously eclectic One Child Left Behind, the 18-piece EPBB lovingly reinvents songs famous and obscure, leaving them readily recognizable and utterly transformed. The first installments in what he hopes to be an ongoing project, these two volumes give a whole new meaning to 'swinging London'.
More than any other EPBB release, The Great Un-American Songbook is like rummaging around Palermo’s record collection and playing tracks at random after imbibing an espresso-laced bottle of absinth. He’s the first to admit that the album is a highly personal and nostalgia-induced undertaking. “Almost everything I do lately is reliving my past,” Palermo says. “With the craft and skill I’ve developed being an arranger for all these years, I can now take those songs that I grew up with and loved, and reinterpret them. I picked my favorite songs, songs that I’m going to want to hear and play a lot. There’s really no other way to explain my selection process.
By the end of the long and winding road through Palermo’s musical backpages there’s no doubt that his nostalgia is our delight, as vintage rock songs make for state-of-the-art jazz. “Anything can be grist for the mill,” Palermo says. “Once I start an arrangement I get so into it. I’m going to put my spin on it.”
Nothing demonstrates the ensemble’s ongoing vitality better than the stellar cast of players, with many longtime collaborators. Many of these top-shelf musicians have been in the band for more than a decade, and they bring wide ranging experience, expert musicianship and emotional intensity to Palermo’s music. From the first note, well, after the goat, the band manifests greatness in a truly Un-American cause.
From the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Jeff Beck to King Crimson, Traffic, and Jethro Tull, The EPBB storms the British invasion and plants the American flag (upside down)!
Clouds scud across a storm-wracked sky, but while briefly exposing rare shards of blue, most often, blacker, gloomier grays lurk behind the mists.
Sometimes a work of art enables us to articulate our thoughts and feelings in times of upheaval and chaos. In an era when the world has seemingly come off its hinges, an album like Hoping Against Hope offers listeners the consolation that they are not alone. But more than that, this intellectually complex work offers tools to help us make sense, affectively at least, of the whole sorry mess.
Thinking Plague is a storied band, whose thirty-five year history has seen it cleave consistently to the extreme limits of what is possible to do within rock music. Much of the music it released has owed more to traditions external to rock, such as folk, chamber music, and particularly, the avant-garde tradition of twentieth-century classical music.
Thinking Plague are often cited as the leading light of the American arm of the ‘Rock In Opposition’ movement, genre-defying and, above all, unique.
The arrangements we hear on Hoping Against Hope are those we will hear live. Even when singer Elaine di Falco’s accordion is written and recorded in multiple voices, the parts are realizable by a single instrument.
Leader and composer Mike Johnson and newest member Bill Pohl’s tightly scored twin guitars are panned out wide enough for the listener to balance the pursuit of an individual voice against the ensemble texture, which is the creative focus, a carefully crafted polyphony served by each instrumental voice. Pohl’s addition brings a second electric guitar to the texture for the first time, enabling more sinuous scoring, rather than making the sound more ‘rock’.
There is a familiar vocabulary in play, a harmonic palette and a phraseology that has evolved considerably over the band’s lifespan without extreme points of rupture, despite major changes and sometimes long gaps between releases; this is clearly the same band that we heard in the 1980s, but Johnson is writing from a creative position that is fruitfully removed from that he occupied even four years ago. As demanding as this music may be, it is made to sound easy, and more importantly, beautiful.