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Tucson Weekly Soundbites

By Stephen Seigel

FEBRUARY 1, 1999:  WINDY INDIES: Surely the most prolific, incestuous, and eclectic music scene to be found in the country right now lies in that heartland cultural bastion known as Chicago. Musicians in Chicago aren't in a band, they're in, like, five or six bands.

Originally everyone was in a band, most likely a pretty cool indie rock band. And then someone along the way--most would blame Tortoise--got the idea to try to stretch the idea of what music was, experimenting with jazz, dub, prog-rock, funk, and whatever else happened to strike their fancy, and in the process, basically fuck with modern genre classification altogether.

These experiments got filed in the "side project" slot until, eventually, everyone was playing with everyone else, and there were so many "projects" going on that the line between "band" and "project" blurred. Finally, everyone seemed to agree it was all just music, and the lesson learned was that possibilities are boundless, and there's no need to adhere to preconceived notions of "marketable product" when a thriving local indie label like Thrill Jockey or Drag City can put it out with minimal promotional costs...meaning no one has to sell half a million copies to get into the black.

And people took notice in droves, mainly because there was nothing else out there that sounded like what these guys were doing. They weren't playing rock, though occasionally they did rock; they weren't playing jazz, though there were plenty of jazz elements to choose from; the echoey drums came straight from classic dub records; and so on and so on. While avid music listeners were just happy to have something fresh and exciting emerge from an often-tiresome indie scene, music journalists everywhere were pulling their hair out trying to come up with a witty label for this thoroughly unclassifiable music.

All sorts of terms were bandied about--virtually all of which contained the hyphenated prefix "post"--until, at last, they too agreed it was all just music. The lesson: Hacks shouldn't attempt to name a genre the point of which is to defy genres.

(It should be noted here that local music scribe and contributor to these very pages, Fred Mills, has probably documented the Chicago experimental scene more exhaustively, accurately, and fairly than anyone else out there in the excellent bi-monthly music mag, Magnet. His "family tree" of Chicago players and their bands alone is invaluable to anyone interested in the scene.)

Two of these "projects," comprised of three key Chicago players, make their way to town this week. First on the bill is Brokeback, a.k.a. Doug McCombs, bassist for both Tortoise and Eleventh Dream Day, which Brokeback started as a way to "explore something not as densely structured as his other musical outings...sparse...to explore the details of rhythm and texture."

McCombs has released two 7-inch singles, both on Thrill Jockey, which are comprised almost entirely of his six-string bass meandering through more melody than rhythm, nice 'n' mellow-like. The first of these singles, released in 1997, contains a cover of Captain Beefheart's "A Carrot is as Close as a Rabbit Gets to a Diamond." McCombs is currently working on his mostly live debut album, to be released in May. Like the two singles, the Brokeback full-length will be produced by Tortoise studio god John McEntire.

Next up on the night is the Chicago Underground Duo, an offshoot of the Chicago Underground Orchestra, a four-piece which features bassist Matt Lux and Tortoise guitarist Jeff Parker. The two members who make up the duo are cornetist Rob Mazurek (who has played and recorded with Tortoise, Gastr del Sol and Jim O' Rourke, among others), and drummer Chad Taylor, who studied at the revered New School in New York, and went on to play with such jazz luminaries as Lou Donaldson and Leon Parker.

The duo, plus Parker, trombonist Sara P. Smith, and John Herndon (ex-Poster Children) and Dan Bitney, both of Tortoise, also combined to form Isotope 217. (See what I mean by incestuous? No wonder Mills had to diagram the whole thing.) To add to the confusion, there's also a Chicago Underground Trio, which consists of Mazurek and Taylor with bassist Noel Kupersmith.

But lest we get too far off track, it's the Duo we're concerned with, for it's the Duo we shall have occasion to witness this week. Somewhat uncomfortably lumped into the free-jazz category, the Chicago Underground Duo is touring in support of its recently released 12 Degrees of Freedom (Thrill Jockey). The recording is comprised of both studio and live tracks, and though still sparse, in addition to the cornet and drums (and Parker's guitar, featured on three tracks), the album is peppered with piano, vibes, and flute.

Finally, the night will conclude with a set by our internationally acclaimed (and local) dynamic duo Calexico, whose last Pueblo appearance at the Mat Bevel institute, while short, was one of the best live performances I saw last year. Their extended cover of the Minutemen's "Jesus and Tequila" prompted not one, but two of my friends to turn to me and exclaim that they'd just witnessed one of those elusive "rock moments." Yes, my friends, they were that good.

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