Chicago Underground Duo – Boca Negra

Chicago Underground Duo - Boca Negra

Although Thrill Jockey’s roster has been radically reshuffled and expanded of late to suck in and publish the wares of a newer promising generation of artistic adventurers – such as High Places, Mountains, The Fiery Furnaces and Thank You – it still falls to the remaining incumbent old-guard signees to sustain the freewheeling character of the label in-between times.  This necessity has become more crucial following the defection of Giant Sand and Califone to other enterprises and since the productivity of TJ veterans like The Sea & Cake, Tortoise and Eleventh Dream Day has slumped short of mid-90s-to-mid-noughties release rates.  Now, the forever-evolving Chicago Underground Duo (sometimes also the Chicago Underground Trio or Quartet), reappear after a four or so year hiatus to take a turn at representing the old school faction of Thrill Jockey’s no-longer-so exclusive club.  Happily, it’s a duty that Rob Mazurek and Chad Taylor take on with trademark intellect and ingenuity, with their first release since 2006’s unfairly overlooked In Praise Of Shadows.

Very much an album of two halves, Boca Negra represents both the twosome’s improvisational intrepidness and sculpted craftsmanship.  Consequently, the first side very much plays to the freeform jazz-fusion instincts that have always drove the band’s wilder and more uncompromising moods.  The opening cornet vs. drums scree of “Green Ants,” the eerie gamelan vibes of “Left Hand Of Darkness” and the discordant reconstruction of Ornette Coleman’s “Broken Shadows” present a capricious introduction that very much rejects any urges for easy or passive listening.  When the fourth cut, “Quantum Eye,” creeps spookily into earshot it’s hard to not feel claustrophobic as well as entranced by a vintage horror-flick ambience.  The battered piano and cornet duelling at the start of “Confliction” carries on the film noire atmosphere a little further, before rupturing into an imagined Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis punch-up, with Taylor’s plangent percussion at the heat of the fisticuffs.

For those who make it through the testing and tempestuous first five pieces, redemptive rewards more comfortably reside within the more meticulously-constructed concluding five.  The gorgeous electro patter of “Hermeto” is the LP’s first must-keep delight and the deliciously groovy bass-driven “Spy On The Floor” is its undoubted close second.  The digital rhythm manipulations of “Laughing With The Sun” and “Roots And Shooting Stars” may bring back in some mad-eyed menace but somehow both feel warmer than if they’d appeared earlier in proceedings.  The curtain-closing “Vergence” is however, unquestionably mesmerising; mixing elegiac electro effects with Taylor’s precise organic percussion and Mazurek’s distant cornet-playing.

Boca Negra is certainly not the easiest entry-route into the post-jazz catacombs of the Chicago Underground, but its steely determination and non-conformity is nevertheless refreshing and worthy of respect.  The uninitiated may find less bumpy in-roads via 2002’s eclectic Axis & Alignment, through the aforementioned In Praise Of Shadows and inside 2001’s sublime eponymous Chicago Underground Quartet platter.  The previously-converted will, on the other hand, comfortably crank this up to tune into its synapse-scrambling and occasional soul-soothing open-endedness.

Thrill Jockey