Just for a moment, you're gonna wish you still had your periodic table from chemistry class, because when someone asks what Isotope 217 is, there are two correct answers. The chemistry-correct answer is that if there were an isotope 217, it would be an extremely unstable element; the other response is that it is a Chicago-based jazz ensemble whose fusion of traditional and modern music is about as complex and combustible as a split atom.
Considering that much of today's rock and jazz audiences feed on the lullaby of the standard verse-chorus-verse-chorus formula, the expansive, ambient approach of Isotope 217 is distinguished by the reservoir of influences from which it draws. Of course, the bandmembers are fans of Miles and Rashaad Roland Kirk, but they also favor Sun Ra and Jaco Pastorius, as well as other artists that the average listener has probably never even heard of.
"Our influences are completely different than what you're used to: King Tubby, Miles Davis, Fela Kuti, and jazz past and future," says cornetist Rob Mazurek from his Chicago home, with jazz blaring in the background. "It's not just music; it's a way of life. Similar to life, this record has all of the elements. You think you're certain of what it is, but it's non-traditional, it's modal, it's the past, it's super-modern, it is the future."
More concretely, the band's sound can perhaps best be described as modal jazz with a twist of hip-hop, bebop, funk and electronica -- a mix that might not rise above the level of sonic mud were it not for the musical pedigree of those creating it. Isotope is an amalgamation of styles and players from some of the Windy City's most touted current musical experiments, continuing -- and warping -- a legacy of Chicago jazz that began with artists like Lester Bowie and continues today with the pouted styling of neo-jazz outfits such as Tortoise and Gastro del Sol. The band formed over four years ago, when Tortoise's guitar-wielding Jeff Parker invited various members of the city's musical scene to get together and explore the possibilities of improvisation. The band has undergone multiple lineup changes, extracting players from various bands in the thriving Chicago jazz, avant-garde and experimental underground; more notable early cameos include a prolonged stint from trombonist Sara P. Smith. Parker eventually recruited Tortoise drummers and percussionists John Herndon and Dan Bitney, bassist Matt Lux, who contributes to Tranquility Bass, and Mazurek, who hailed from the Chicago Underground Orchestra Duo and Trio and joined the band in 1995. According to Mazurek, even though the players may share an essential aesthetic appreciation for exploratory jazz, each brings something different to the musical discourse.
"Everyone is reacting to each other's thing, because we're always introducing each other to new stuff. That's what keeps it moving," he says. "The chemistry of Isotope is different from other bands, because we all come from interrelated groups. If you remove one person from Isotope, it changes the face of the band."
From its inception, Isotope 217's sound and composition relied heavily on improvisational sessions -- furious musical exchanges where simple ideas might result in full-blown sonic embellishments, perhaps never to be re-created. It's a methodology evident on the band's debut for Thrill Jockey, 1997's The Unstable Molecule; on the release, Smith's extemporaneous trombone playing provided strung-out backbeat highlights that embroidered the roving, free-form sound. Yet when Smith was forced to quit the band after suffering from extreme tendinitis, Isotope began to deviate from its improvisation-based roots and focus on composition. "[Smith] was powerful in a subtle way, and her absence really made us approach our sound differently," Mazurek says. Rather than developing arrangements from impromptu sessions, the players exerted a conscious effort to build upon a more controlled framework of ideas. The strains of improvisation are still part of the process, but the ideas are eventually molded to form.
"Now the arrangements are completely composed, but we try to create a constant organicism. We've played together so long that, mentally, we have what needs to be there to make good sonic decisions. There's all kinds of subconscious reactions going on [to each other's playing]," Mazurek says. "If there is a conscious reaction, I'm not sure I could say what it was."
The current incarnation of Isotope has since developed into a more stable unit whose experiments in sound, while more controlled, are still uniquely modern. The band's latest release on Thrill Jockey, Utonian Automatic, traverses traditional African rhythms and the modal stylings of early-Seventies jazz artists while incorporating electronic quarks to synthesize a particularly postmodern product. In addition to the live instruments, Utonian relies heavily on keyboards and effects to make up for Smith's absence. The first track, "Luh," launches with a hard groove and a bubbling bass line; the song's "bad-ass rhythmic shit," as Mazurek appropriately describes it, lays funky primer for the subtle Hancockian moog and synth interjections that build to a point of combustion before everything stops and is gently brought back by Mazurek's sympathetic cornet.
At times throughout the disc, it seems as though all of the players are thriving on different riffs, a result of the melodies being individually interpreted and interwoven within the rhythm section. "Solaris," in particular, brings to mind the loosely oriented patterns of the early-Seventies work of Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock circa the Headhunters period. However, barely detectable amid strutting bass framework, rolling guitar melodies and the hushed tones of the cornet are highly choreographed sounds. The group interplay suggests a stream-of-consciousness musical conversation; melodies juxtapose each other, and electronic sounds are sprinkled without obvious pattern -- in other words, there is order in the chaos.
"There was only one improvised solo [on Utonian Automatic]," says Mazurek. "Everything else was a controlled sound. There's an organic Nubian sound for sure, but we work off an arrangement."
The call-and-response feel of Isotope 217's music can largely be attributed to the chemistry that exists between the players. "Some people write and contribute more than others, but all are equally important. What we're about is mixing ideas and mixing sounds," Mazurek says, a statement that might sound overly diplomatic were it not so evident in both the band's recordings and its notorious live performances. The stage remains a place where the players allow a certain modicum of embellishment of the band's established oeuvre.
"Anything goes at any time," Mazurek says. "We have enough trust in each other to allow exploration. We can stretch out live, because not everyone needs a guardrail." Yet don't expect the kind of showy exhibitionism that sometimes accompanies the performance of sophisticated "look at what we can do" music.
"We're not into showcasing certain instruments. We work as a collective, and if we do solo, we make sure that it's being done in a satisfying way, because each note counts.
"I am concerned with people diggin' what we're doing. I know when I go to hear someone, I wanna hear shit I've never heard before."
Isotope 217 creates instrumental music that is emotionally and intellectually compelling yet colored by a smattering of semi-obscure influences. So it seems a safe bet that courageous listeners will be hard-pressed not to find something new in the sound. To what extent they actually comprehend the methodical madness, however, might be a different story. Perhaps a diagram -- or a periodic table -- would help.
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