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NewCityNet Hard Pleasures

By Dave Chamberlain

FEBRUARY 9, 1998:  Important music. If that phrase is applied to popular music, then the last really important record was "Nevermind." But "Nevermind," although great, was really nothing more than old music put together in a different way. The problem with truly important music, which blazes genre trails or takes an existing form to a new level, is that it always boils down to being just plain pretentious or so difficult that even discriminating hobbyists often veer away.

That said, Isotope 217's "The Unstable Molecule" (released on New Beyond Records, an imprint of Thrill Jockey started by band members John Herndon and Dan Bitney) will be viewed as one of the most important records ever to come out of Chicago -- ten years down the road. More impressively, it's accessible to listeners with only a smattering of jazz and mechanics-of-music knowledge. At times cerebral, and at others as free-flowing as the loneliest John Coltrane solo, "The Unstable Molecule" can't be absorbed in one listen or even twenty. But when you hit the repeat button, it's because you want to.

Isotope 217 is another Tortoise side project, composed of Tortoise members Herndon, Bitney and Jeff Parker, alongside Rob Mazurek and Sara P. Smith from the Chicago Underground Orchestra and Matt Lux, who plays in Tranquility Bass' live ensemble. The product, however, only resembles Tortoise insofar as it is experiment-heavy, with no stylistic boundaries. The closest blanket description would be jazz, but experiments in syncopation and digital ambience move Isotope 217 beyond that label.

"I would rather Isotope not be referred to as jazz," says guitarist Jeff Parker. "I know I can't expect it not to come across as jazz. But in reality, we're just doing our thing."

Their thing can perhaps be described as jazz amalgamated with the various influences of the band members, including hip-hop, hard bop, drum-n-bass and even punk rock. It's an aesthetic reached by experience, both as creators and connoisseurs of music.

Although Isotope 217 existed as an informal group for more than two years, with a somewhat rotating membership, Parker contends "it wasn't really a band" until cornet player Rob Mazurek joined up. Still, they only loosely pursued making a record. "We talked with Bettina" Richards of Thrill Jockey, says Parker, "but we didn't know whether she'd put it out or not. When we finally finished, she liked it."

The six songs run a little more than thirty minutes, but each is dense with layers of sound. The opening track, "Kryptonite Smokes the Red Line," starts almost as a free jazz-soft jazz mix, before multiple, sometimes singular and sometimes overlapping percussion takes eventually give way to a Miles Davis-style song pattern. "Beneath the Undertow" resembles something from Coltrane's "Dakar," but again with a multiplicity of (and now Latin-derived) percussion. The remaining four tracks exhibit free-flow tinkering and experimentation moving between acid jazz and the ambient residue of sound.

Although the musicians essentially created Isotope 217 out of jamming, the record exhibits a focused, forward-moving momentum. "Isotope is based on improv," says Parker, "but for the record we just wanted to unify parts." They also found that during the recording process, even improvs "tend to become very structured."

With Isotope preparing to tour the East Coast with The Lonesome Organist (a trip that had been put on hold due to delays recording the forthcoming Tortoise record), the music press has been hailing "The Unstable Molecule" as a breakthrough in jazz. That's a bit ironic, since it comes from players with so many other musical interests, a rare commodity among serious jazz players. "I think in a lot of ways," Parker notes, "jazz guys being into only jazz has held it back for a long time. Up until the late 1970s, it seemed like jazz openly embraced what was going on in the music around them. Players would use things like electric pianos and available technology. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. But at least they went out and tried. Now, jazz seems so sectioned off."

Although the popular music front has thinned in quality (or, at least, popularity) since the major labels discovered the big, Salty Pumpkin Phair six years ago, Chicago has become better-known for music that stresses a high level of musicianship and creativity over thirty seconds worth of sugar. And Isotope's members (alongside the rest of Tortoise) have been key to fostering that impression. But Parker seems genuinely surprised to hear himself mentioned as important. "Chicago has always been an incredible creative center," he says. "The way Chicago is now is no different than it's ever been."

LISTEN UP: Rahshaan Roland Kirk, "Dog Years in the Fourth Ring," grouped with "Natural Black Inventions: Root Strata" (32 Jazz).

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