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Q&A: Chicago Underground Duo's Chad Taylor On Improvising, The New York And Chicago Jazz Scenes, And Leaving Thrill Jockey

Chicago Underground Duo's defection from their longtime label Thrill Jockey to the fledgling New York-based Northern Spy imprint—after fifteen years and some seven albums of visionary experimentalism gleaned from Windy City improv and post-jazz sonics—is actually a reunion of sorts.

In the naughts, Chicago Underground drummer Chad Taylor and Northern Spy co-chief Tom Abbs, along with pianist Cooper-Moore, performed and released a 2005 album under the moniker Tryptich Myth. This month, Taylor and his partner, cornet/multi-instrumentalist mastermind Rob Mazurek, released Age of Energy—an intrepid set of electronics-drenched manipulations, drone fuckery and ambient avant-jazz textures and skronkiness—on Abbs' label.

Sound of the City spoke to Taylor via email.

The obvious question involved your label move to Northern Spy after many years on Thrill Jockey. What prompted your signing to Northern Spy for your new record, Age of Energy?

We just thought it was time to move on. We have had fifteen years with Thrill Jockey and we wish them well. The people at Northern Spy are great and we really enjoy working with them.

Besides Thrill Jockey, you've had releases on the Chicago-based label Delmark. With the move to the New York-based Northern Spy, are you trying, in a sense, to separate yourselves from the city in which you've been ingrained in and started?

I think our music, aesthetically, has its roots in Chicago. We both grew up there, and have been influenced by groups of all different genres from the city. Rob currently lives in Chicago. And I travel there frequently. I don't think we are trying to separate ourselves from Chicago. We simply made a recording for a label that is based in New York.

You play in NYC quite a bit and the avant-garde jazz scene here is thriving. You seem to be an integral part of it, playing with Marc Ribot, Darius Jones and others. Is there a parallel to how much is going on in New York to the Chicago jazz scene with the likes of Ken Vandermark and Jeff Parker?

We don't think of ourselves as being a part of the New York avant-garde scene or the Chicago scene. We make music and records with people we enjoy playing with. We have been fortunate to be able to play with some outstanding musicians over the years in both cities.

Do you guys feel more of an excitement and interest for present-day jazz with forward-thinking labels like your new label and AUM Fidelity, than, say, a decade ago? Has anything changed in your eyes for better or for worse?

There have always been people creating interesting music, and there have always been labels willing to put the music out. The problem now is it is much harder to survive as a musician or as a label than it was in the early '90s, when we first started making records.

 

Chicago Underground Duo, live in Naples in 2010

Early on, Chicago Underground and other projects like Isotope 217 got lumped in with the post-rock movement. Looking back, as jazz disciples, did you think of being called post-rock as an albatross or was it something you embraced?

We don't think of ourselves as jazz disciples. We play and listen to music that moves us with people we enjoy making music with. It is very hard to control how people label your music. People usually label it however they want regardless if you put a label on it or not.

What constitutes a Chicago Underground duo, quartet or orchestra release? Does it depend on who's available?

It depends on who's performing in the group. At present, the duo is the only working Chicago Underground ensemble. It's possible that this might change in the future.

Rob used to split time between Chicago and Brazil, and you are on tour extensively. How do you two go about keeping in touch and keeping Chicago Underground active?

Rob currently lives in Chicago and I live in Brooklyn. It's not easy by any means but we somehow make it happen. I think it's always been an important and musically rewarding group for both of us so we keep at it.

How much of the compositions on Age of Energy and earlier work were composed beforehand, and how much was improvised?

It's about half and half. Age of Energy is unique in that it is the first time we improvised live in the studio with electronics. On our other records, we used electronics in the post- production process or as a pre-recorded template to improvise with.

When you play live, do you play songs off your albums, or is the live experience improvised? Do you prefer improvisation over rehearsed material?

We have done both in the past. We have also played completely acoustically and we have played only utilizing electronics. It sort of depends on the sort of mood we are in. We prefer when there is a mixture of both.

Chicago Underground Duo play at Union Pool tonight.

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