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The Unstable Molecule

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Thrill Jockey
thrill 049 - 1997

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Isotope 217 is made up of Dan Bitney, John Herndon, and Jeff Parker from Tortoise along with Rob Mazurek (Chicago Underground, Exploding Star Orchestra), and Matt Lux (Iron & Wine).

“Drawing from free jazz, hard bop, funk, dub and post-rock, without resulting in some featureless muddle or lifeless ‘fusion’, the group’s aesthethic simultaneously recalls different aspects of early 70s musical experimentation: The Art Ensemble of Chicago, Bitches Brew/On the Corner-era Miles Davis, and vintage King Tubby. Isotope 217 don’t merely assemble these diverse elements in one place, but rather explore the common ground that already underlies them: a shared emphasis on texture, timbre, space, and groove” - The Wire

“On Isotope 217’s impressive debut Mazurek works wonders alongside Sara P. Smith’s elastic, earthy trombone, adding particularly Cherry-like phrase fragments on “Beneath the Undertow” and laying slow tones over busy rhythms. Tortoise percussionists Dan Bitney and John Herndon weave together acoustic and synthetic rhythms while bassist Matt Lux holds steady. Parker is rarely in the spotlight, but his presence is huge-he lurks in the background, subtly coloring the proceedings, sneaking in a deadly wah-wah groove on “Phonometrics”, the hardest-funkin’ cut” - Chicago Reader

“Dense, hypnotic grooves clash with improvisation to create something methodical, yet thoroughly organic” - CMJ

Original bio : The music of Isotope 217 is as complex and varied as the influences of it's members. The following is a short run down of the members of Isotope 217:

John Herndon (drums, percussion) and Dan Bitney (drums, percussion) have been playing together since 1990 when Dan joined Tortoise.  Jeff Parker (Guitar) began playing with Herndon and Bitney in Tortoise live as early as 1995. Parker has played with Joshua Redman, Roy Hargrove, all the Marsalis', Lisle Ellis, Charles Earland, Lester Bowie, Ed Wilkerson, Fred Anderson, Fred Hopkins, Famadou Don Maye and Malachi Favors to name a few. He is affiliated with Chicago's AACM through his membership in Ernest Dawkins' New Horizons Ensemble with whom he has recorded 4 albums and also logs time in Tortoise, and the Chicago Underground Orchestra.

Rob Mazurek's (Cornet) early recordings owe a debt to Hard Bop, but his more recent work with the Chicago Underground Orchestra has "taken his playing towards the fringes with the assured muscle of Lee Morgan (which) pulses through Mazurek's solos on more swinging material (while) the piquent phrasing of Don Cherry or the gorgeously abstract smears of Bill Dixon are just as likely to surface," says Chicago Reader's Peter Margasak.

Sara P. Smith (Trombone) plays in the Chicago Underground Orchestra with Rob and Jeff and spent a few years at Berkely School of Music where Sara began playing with Jeff Parker in The Last Quartet. They have been working together off and on ever since. Smith still spends a considerable amount of time working on the west coast. She recorded with Viggo Martensen in a group with DJ Bone Break and Buckethead and has also recorded with Ralph Carney, Steve Hodges and Larry Taylor in a group "Henri" released on Action Box Records. Her live teeth were cut with the infamous soul man Sam Taylor Jr.

Matt Lux (Bass) is a veteran of Chicago's Funk scene and has played with numerous groups in Chicago, most notably Tranquility Bass. Though unfortunately without access to Chicago scene, the group names would be of no consequence as they were largely unrecorded. Matt's imaginative variations and his flexibility are indespensible to Isotope 217, whose compositions flow directly from extended improvisational work.

Here's what Isotope 217 had to say on Isotope 217:
"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.



  • 1 Kryptonite Smokes The Red Line
  • 2 Beneath The Undertow
  • 3 La Jetee'
  • 4 Phonometrics
  • 5 Prince Namor
  • 6 Audio Boxing

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