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Isotope 217
Chicago-Style Game of Musical Chairs

Over the past five years, the Windy City has produced a countless number of a new breed of bands—Tortoise, Sea and Cake, Brokeback, Directions, Gastr Del Sol, Chicago Underground Orchestra, 5ive Style, and DKV Trio are but a few. Created from different combos of a loose family of networking musicians, the resulting sound is generally instrumental, with a collision of jazz, indie rock, jazz, dub and reggae, experimental noise, folk, electronica, twentieth-century classical, world, and other genres. Though it’s impossible to summarize every project in one sentence, most offer groove-heavy bass, smooth sounds from vintage synthesizers, laid-back beats, and few, if any, vocals.

“One individual is influenced by so much stuff I wouldn’t know where to start,” says bassist Matthew Lux of the genre-bending instrumental collective Isotope 217, yet another Chicago-bred all-star collaboration, coming to town this week. The group simply can’t limit itself to one style. But, Lux says, “On the new record, you’re beginning to hear what our sound is like ... maybe a little futurish, like some space thing.”

Isotope 217’s latest is Utonian Automatic, the follow-up to their 1997 debut, The Unstable Molecule. The songs burst with funky grooves; more ambient numbers crackle and hum like electricity. Jeff Parker, Dan Bitney, and John Herndon—all Tortoise players—bring in fluid, jazz-inflected guitar lines, dynamic percussion, and exotic keyboards. Along with Lux, cornetist Rob Mazurek completes the lineup. Mazurek and Parker are two members with legitimate jazz backgrounds, and on the new song “Looking after Life on Mars,” their solos evoke the electric jazz fusion of Miles Davis and John McLaughlin.

Most striking, however, is the humble rapport members of Isotope 217 have established as they’ve pursued weekly improv-based gigs at the Rainbo Club, a hangout for Chicago musicians. Unlike the typically ubiquitous, egocentric rock musician, Lux doesn’t mind playing two notes for a ten-minute jam if that’s what his band mates ask. In turn, others equally yield to his ideas. Such patience has led to some dazzling musical explorations.

Though the initial impulse in forming Isotope 217 was to plug into a more uninhibited musical expression, “on the albums, there’s little improvisation, little jamming,” says Lux. So while the record captures an exhaustively honed effect, Isotope 217’s live show is more spontaneous. The music “might sound like Pharaoh Sanders … like reggae, and it might sound like Afrika Bambaataa,” explains Lux. But the improvisations more often soothe than irritate. “It doesn’t mean squeaking and honking.”

Despite the fact that these Chicago musicians are currently in two, three, or more bands, as well as doubling as studio engineers, Lux shares the bottom line. “Nobody in this crew is making money…. We’re all pretty fucking broke. You play as much as you can because you pretty much have to.” But for Lux, the rewards of Isotope 217 are magnified exponentially. “I love the chance to play with my favorite band every night.”

Originally published in the Orlando Weekly on October 7, 1999.