Though it’s always been a crucial music center, in the past half-decade a bunch of Chicago avant-jazz players have been commanding the international spotlight. Driven in part by the rise of the essential jazz label International Anthem and the recurring brilliance of Thrill Jockey, artists including Jeff Parker (now based in L.A.), Ben LaMar Gay, multi-instrumentalist-cornetist Rob Mazurek and mindblowing drummer Makaya McCraven have released genre-bending sounds that mix acoustic and electronic elements to foment instrumental revelations.
The seeds of this recent blooming were planted in the 1990s. Driven by dirt-cheap warehouse spaces, community living and clubs including the Empty Bottle and Lounge Ax, a loose collective of players converged on Chicago from across the Midwest.
Below, five entry points into an oft-overlooked bounty of instrumental magic.
Tortoise – Millions Now Living Will Never Die
Though their follow-up, TNT, gets all the love right now, Tortoise’s second album upended the status quo when it was released in 1996, and single-handedly helped invent the “post-rock” genre. Members of Tortoise – Doug McCombs, Jeff Parker, John Herndon, John McEntire, David Pajo and Dan Bitney – have continued to make music, each becoming his own inspirational hub.
Isotope 217 – The Unstable Molecule
Here’s what Isotope 217 – three members of Tortoise, as well as Rob Mazurek, Matt Lux (Iron & Wine), and Sara P. Smith – had to say about its music: ”It is hard to state exactly what this band is because of the diverse influences of the participants. One might say an eclectic avant funk ensemble dedicated to the Phonometric* system of universal thought. One might also say a freewheeling trans-moleculer unit dedicated to the betterment of all worlds. (*Phonometrics are, as described by Satie, the Science of measuring sound).” The band’s 1997 debut, The Unstable Molecule, is an unsung classic, but each of the group’s three records are essential additions to your collection.
Chicago Underground Duo – 12 Degrees of Freedom
Founded by multi-instrumentalist Mazurek and drummer Chad Taylor, the Chicago Underground Duo’s first album arrived as the Chicago instrumental sound was earning raves not only in the U.S., but Europe and Japan. The Duo, which at various points has been a trio and an orchestra, has released seven albums since its stellar 1998 first, “12 Degrees of Freedom,” each of which is worthy of deep, focused attention.
Jim O’Rourke / Brise -Glace, When in Vanitas
Though his influence transcends Chicago and he currently lives in Japan, composer Jim O’Rourke recorded a stack of genre-shattering classics while living and working in Chicago. His trio of recordings released from 1997-2001 for Drag City – Bad Timing, Eureka and Insignificance – featured stellar players including Glenn Kotche (Wilco, On Fillmore), Darin Gray (Brice-Glace, Dazzling Killmen, On Fillmore), Tortoise’s John McIntire and cornetist Mazurek. One of O’Rourke’s most fascinating projects of the time, Brise-Glace, found him and Gray combining with guitarist Dylan Posa and multi-instrumentalist Thymme Jones.
The Sea and Cake – The Fawn
Founded by painter and musician Sam Prekop after the breakup of Shrimp Boat, the Sea and Cake featured some of Chicago’s best players supporting Prekop’s song-based meditations. The best of their output during the ‘90s is The Fawn. Produced by Tortoise’s McIntire, it mixes guitars, electronics and rhythmic drive to create gentle, Krautrock-inspired pop music.