Chicago cornetist Rob Mazurek was a myth for most of my time in Chicago, with extensive touring and various residencies keeping him almost permanently away from the city by the time I became aware of his existence. But still, Mazurek casted long shadows over the Northside jazz and improvised music community, and his returns were celebrated both in large ensembles (e.g. the Exploding Star Orchestra) and more intimate club settings.
When I finally saw Mazurek live in Chicago with his brilliant trio Starlicker, featuring Jason Adasiewicz on vibes and John Herndon on percussion, it quickly snapped into place what a unique artist Mazurek really is. Capable of moving straight ahead but preferring to move in any and all other directions, constantly pushing his process as well as his chops (which, come to think of it, I can say as well about Herndon and Adasiewicz, two of my favorite Chicago musicians), Mazurek is an extremely mature and thoughtful musician.
Age of Energy was released to mark the 15th anniversary of his Chicago Underground umbrella, which has recorded in many forms. It milks contrasts, including classic and post-rock-tinged grooves alongside extensive use of technology, and tension between known and unknown elements in terms of synthesis. At all times, Mazurek and his longtime Chicago Underground collaborator, the outstanding drummer/synthesist/vocalist Chad Taylor, are attentive and frequently heroic musicians, channeling the aforementioned known-unknown tension in myriad ways.
Constantly pushing takes the Duo into surprising territory as well. The opening passage of the 20-minute “Winds and Sweeping Plains” sounds like it could be at home on some random experimental tape, with modular synth loops and drones and heavily processed vocals. But several minutes later, it’s grooving on a fat drum pattern with a blipping bass loop, and then Mazurek has picked up his heavily processed cornet for a spacey free-playing passage. And finally there’s a more recognizable horn passage over a fantastic hard-driving groove.
“It’s Alright” is a flat-out beautiful lullaby with sweet vocals, sparse horn from Mazurek and pleasantly crushed out drones. Mazurek’s playing is melodically interesting, but he has mastered something I’ve heard Miles Davis do in his late-‘60s recordings, which is to play “out” passages that aren’t ostentatious, and become part of the musical fabric of a piece. It’s the equivalent of singing wordless vocals – sometimes overwrought or too self-consciously abstract, but sometimes incredibly striking and imbued with mysterious feeling. This is something Mazurek does very well. But Taylor’s super inventive, high-energy drumming matches him artfully, showing that these old-friend collaborators are developing many more compelling new things to say.