“Sound is all,” says cornetist and electronics manipulator Rob Mazurek by way of explanation for his two groups, Isotope 217 and Chicago Underground Duo. Exploring a rare union of jazz-level improvisation and groove-straddling electronica, each band vacillates between unplugged and hot-wired source material. Taking a few giant steps to the fringe on their respective new albums — Who Stole the I Walkman? and Synesthesia — both groups use the recording process as a tool for reimagining their live performances as art music for the mind, body, and spirit.
On Walkman, Isotope 217 realizes its ethereal vision with the layering of textures. Mazurek and guitarist Jeff Parker provide sinewy, melodic leads that fire-dance on top of a deep, rhythmic foundation provided by bassist Matthew Lux and dueling drummers (and Tortoise alumnus) Dan Bitney and John Herndon. Swirling keyboard timbres and plucky electro blips and burrs contribute to the aural mass, which frequently morphs from immediate, heavy frequencies to more meditative sounds.
Combining compositional elegance, improvisatory energy, and a range of textures, Chicago Underground Duo mines a slimmed-down version of the Isotope theme on Synesthesia. The surprisingly sumptuous duets by Mazurek and drummer/vibraphonist Chad Taylor recall the free-feeling lyricism and outward-bound exploration of jazz pioneers Ornette Coleman and Miles Davis, as well as drummer Jack DeJohnette's electronic experiments with trumpeter Lester Bowie.
By loosening the boundaries of sound, Isotope 217 and Chicago Underground Duo take aim at cosmic transcendence.