Horn of plenty
Local jazz icon Rob Mazurek returns from Brazil for a summer of shows
As he speaks to us from his home in Manaus, Brazil, an isolated city of 1.8 million in the middle of the Amazon rainforest, it’s not readily apparent why former Chicagoan Rob Mazurek would ever want to leave. “Well, let’s see,” he says. “I wake up and make coffee for my wife, and then I like to paint for a few hours. Then I’ll shift to working on sound projects on the computer or practicing cornet. And then I’ll make some lunch, because I like to cook.” When he does venture out, it’s not easy: “If you want to get around, outside the city proper, you have to take boats. But it’s pretty incredible—you take a boat for 20 minutes and you are in [the rainforest].”
But as an internationally in-demand musician and up-and-coming visual artist, Mazurek does leave. He spends almost half the year abroad in places as far flung as Austria and, this summer at least, his former home of Chicago. Despite a hectic schedule—he has five musical groups playing here in the coming months, as well as an art exhibit—he kicks off his Chicago summer with his boldest project yet, the Sun Ra–meets–industrial noise ensemble Mandarin Movie.
Last September, at the Wire festival at Empty Bottle, Mandarin Movie began its set innocently enough, with Mazurek laying out a calm, clarion note on his cornet until even the most patient fans became fidgety. Then the jazz and rock Chicago veterans surrounding him on stage seized on a slight visual cue and shifted into a deafening roar. A drummer and two bassists, one on electric and one on acoustic, all punished their instruments while Mazurek simultaneously reprocessed the event through his laptop. The Bottle’s walls seemed to quiver in sympathy.
Mazurek talks about the group affectionately. “Some of the young guys that I am playing with now were just moving into the city when I was living there. Just to watch them become leading improvisers—not only in the city, but worldwide—is amazing. People like [drummer] Frank Rosaly and [acoustic bassist] Jason Ajemian have developed amazing voices on their instruments.”
Mazurek first arrived in the Midwest with his family at the age of ten. After a sheltered upbringing in Naperville (“I felt like I was surrounded by androids who were programmed to live this suburban lifestyle”), he moved to the city and enrolled in the Bloom School of Jazz, quickly becoming a notable straight-ahead jazz trumpeter in the late ’80s. Eventually, he began an informal gathering at the Green Mill and dubbed it Chicago Underground, bringing him closer to more experimental jazz musicians like drummer Chad Taylor, now a frequent collaborator, and Tortoise’s Jeff Parker. It was there that groups like the Chicago Underground Duo and the ’70s-era Miles Davis fusion–influenced Isotope 217 were born.
Although Mazurek speaks fondly about Chicago, he feels he left at the right time. “I was more than happy to move to another country, especially Brazil, just to step back and get another perspective,” he says. “We all know how the breakdown of U.S. politics is not just affecting the U.S., but the world, and I see that all the time when I go touring.”
Brazil has played a decisive role in Mazurek’s recent renaissance. His wife is a professional biologist, and he’s begun exploring the field himself, making audio recordings of electric eels, among other things. It brings to mind another former Chicago jazz musician heavily immersed in science. “Sun Ra was certainly a huge influence on me early on, and even now,” Mazurek says. “His voracious appetite for knowing things and projecting ideas and just to be able to have the no-fear factor; [growing up with his music] was a real learning experience for me.”
A display of Mazurek’s artwork is up at the DANK Museum’s rough:space gallery through Jun 16.
Isotope 217 reunites Jun 18 at Empty Bottle.The Chicago Underground Duo, a collaboration with Chad Taylor, plays Jul 30 at the Pitchfork Music Festival and Aug 2 at Empty Bottle.
The sprawling Exploding Star Orchestra plays May 31 at Hideout, Jun 3 at DANK-HAUS and Jun 7 at the Chicago Cultural Center.
Electronic outfit São Paulo Underground will play the World Music Festival in September.
Catch Mazurek when Mandarin Movie plays Empty Bottle Monday 22.