Rob Mazurek Octet – Skull Sessions (Cuneiform)
Rob mazurek cornet; Thomas Rohrer C melody saxophone and rabeca; Nicole Mitchell flute; Carlos Issa guitar and electronics; Guilherme Granado keyboards and electronics; Jason Adasiewicz vibraphone; Mauricio Takara percussion and cavaquinho; John Herndon drums.
Skull Sessions resulted from a commission, on the theme of affinity for the music of Miles Davis, to accompany a Davis-themed exhibition in São Paulo. Rather than rework Davis’ compositions, Mazurek convened the present Octet and wrote all new music to suit, rehashed Miles being no way to pay tribute to a ceaseless innovator. The closest point of reference would be Davis’ Live Evil/Cellar Door band, incorporating the influence of Hermeto Pascoal.
Mazurek’s Octet includes Tortoise drummer John Herndon and vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, both from Mazurek’s Starlicker trio; and Guilherme Granado and Mauricio Takara from São Paulo Underground, among other cherry-picked personnel. Its variegated front line of cornet, C melody sax, electric guitar, cavaquinho (Brazilian ukulele) and rabeca (Brazilian viola), ensure that the octet can colour its canvas with painterly effect, in textural diversity matched by a rich percussive blend of vibaphone, drums and non-kit percussion.
“Galactic Ice Skeleton” is driven by powerful ensemble ostinatos reminiscent, at times, of Jaga Jazzist in full flow. Here the muted tone of the C melody sax compliments Mazurek’s cornet beautifully. Relatively light percussion interplay carries the bridge into “Voodoo and the Petrified Forest”, foregrounding Mazurek’s Milesian cornet solo. The percussion patterning becomes increasingly frenetic as the piece develops, and flute, electric guitar and vibes entwine in dense thickets of percussion. Later flute and rabeca twine in a divergent strand. As the piece eases down, Adasiewicz’ vibes spark a reprise of Mazurek’s cornet line, though it’s the rabeca that comes to the fore as Herndon’s kit drums and a repeat descending bass figure emphasised by bass drum kicks bolster the ensemble.
“Passing Light Screams” initially continues the prevailing mood, albeit at a lower intensity, but there’s an extended feature for cornet and vibraphone duo at its heart. When the full octet is whipped back in by increasingly stormy percussion and lashed cymbals, the vibes combine with electronics to produce a stormy, pressurised atmosphere.
Adasiewicz has a brief feature to begin “Skull Caves of Alderon” – first solo, then to the accompaniment of Herndon’s insistent kit drumming, which is bolstered by an electronic bass line. Adasciewicz vibing is overtaken by the rabeca, which really takes flight in combination with Nicole Mitchell’s fluting, and the tune plays out with further tensions traded among the frontline, including a vigorously spiky electric guitar line driven particularly hard into Herndon’s splashy, tumultuous drumming.
The high levels of flab-free intensity are maintained until the album’s last and briefest track, “Keeping the Light Up” (04:22), a quiet postlude of electronics combined with flute and rabeca.
Skull Sessions works superbly as a suite that has affinities with the music of Miles Davis and the music of São Paulo, but never flirts with copyism.
São Paulo Underground – Beija Flors Velho E Sujo (Cuneiform)
Rob mazurek cornet, Evolver, ring modulator, analog delay, harmonium; Guilherme Granado keyboards, synths, sampler, voice; Mauricio Takara percussion, cavaquinho, electronics.
Beija Flors Velho E Sujo, or “Ol’ Dirty Hummingbirds”, as it’s translated in the title of the first track, was rehearsed during a 2012 tour of North America, and recorded in Chicago studio later the same year. Comprising ten mostly short pieces packed with invention, the album is similar to Skull Sessions in its momentum and busy orchestration, but denser, more protean, and with greater emphasis on non-acoustic sound.
“Ol’ Dirty Hummingbirds” plunges the listener straight into the Mazurek & co’s Tropicalia blender. It’s an almost frantic mix of splashy, polyrhythmic percussion; squelchy, distortional or otherwise characteristically rude electronics (“Arnus Nusar” has a looped figure that sounds like a dancehall sample); and Mazurek’s lead cornet, which is subject to various treatments.
The muzzy, muted sound of the cornet, the funk of treated electronics and the underlying rhythmic impetus may echo Miles Davis’ practice in his Fillmore years, but the uptempo drive, the diverse palette of processings, and the rhythmic freedoms of Mazurek’s music are all absolutely box-fresh.
Amid all the incidental detail, Mazurek rarely strays far from an incisive melody, and two atypical moments stand out:: a version of “Over the Rainbow”, played poignantly and surprisingly straight (actually sampled from a Spanish club date with an unnamed pianist); and a melody that recurs throughout “The Love I Feel for You is More Real Than Ever” which, in its pathos, recalls, probably unintentionally, the chorus of the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood”.
“A Arvore de Cereja É Ausente” is a rare interval of static abstraction, but its concluding uptempo kick into “Taking Back the Sea is no Easy Task” evokes a free-jazz organ trio, with Mazurek’s open cornet pealing out jazzy declamations and implying the unison fanfare of a brass section. The track lasts less than five minutes, as do all but one of the others, and as with the majority it’s dense with detail and switchback juxtapositions.
The album treads a tightrope between exuberance (“Evetch” and “The Love I Feel…” both tip the balance that way) and discord (“Six Handed Casino”), but the balancing act is a thrilling thing indeed.