It’s hard to get an anchor on Rob Mazurek’s muse. To take an extreme example, 2009’s Matter Anti-Matter yokes a barnstorming live performance by Mazurek’s Exploding Star Orchestra to a collection of solo electronic works. The former is exuberant, one of the best Mazurek sets on record; the latter is introspective, and interesting; there’s no obvious connection.
The solo Mother Ode makes some sense of the apparent dichotomy, as Mazurek improvises an elegy for his deceased mother on an assortment of instruments, including wind instruments, idiophones, bells, cardboard and electronics, his non-iterative methodology illuminating a broader practice of expressive, in-the-moment ideation. The new album from his São Paulo Underground project makes the same kind of sense, unifying the various strands of Mazurek’s prolific music making better than anything else he’s yet recorded.
São Paulo Underground – Mazurek’s trio with Brazilian multi-instrumentalists Mauricio Takara and Guilherme Granado, in which all play synths and electronics as much as their ‘regular’ brass and percussion instruments – operate as a subset of the Exploding Star Orchestra, and as a more versatile collaborative offshoot. Here they are enhanced by Thomas Rohrer, making this the same group recorded as Black Cube SP.
The approach on Cantos Invisiveis (Cuneiform), São Paulo Underground’s fifth album, is studio-based, electro-acoustic and improvisatory, and the results more variegated than the free rhythms and diverse processes of their last album, Beija Flors Velho E Sujo, which trod a fine line between exuberance and discord. I didn’t think it hung together at first, but its freedoms won me over, and now I’m fully convinced.
The title translates from Portuguese as “invisible or disappearing corners” or “songs”, and Mazurek has explained that the band “masked” their music as “a disappearing through layering and sound manipulation … atmospheres that cause form and melody to disappear, and to reappear.”
There’s a dreamy, naive quality to “Estrada Para o Oeste” (13:45). Synth-ghosted reeds play variations on a melodic fragment over a background of loose percussive clatter and other electronic detritus, and tension mounts. But then we’re deposited into a deep arhythmic space, in which disassociated sounds float untethered before kit drumming ushers in a jazzier reprise of the opening mood. This is all within eight minutes. The piece is then stretched into new tensions by pulsing electric bass, and Mazurek plays some distended and distorted solo cornet. The kiss-off is a chant reminiscent of Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s “Volunteered Slavery”, accompanied by hand percussion.
The brief, carnivalesque “Violent Orchid Parade” is a natural follow-up, making sense, finally, of Mazurek’s description of this music as “a street parade for everybody”. But while the next piece is titled “Cambodian Street Carnival” it’s a dreamy sort of carnival, with a court gamelan vibe, and Mazurek rubbing brassy smears over cheap-synth distortions, Arkestral chanting and busy hand percussion.
“Lost Corners Boogie” is rough and ready, played on glitchy electronics and keys, an initial boogie feel giving way to a looping, abstract pop-funk groove that ends in glitch-out. “Desisto II” picks up likewise, but kit drumming brings rhythm sense where little else is certain, engaging Mazurek in conversation alongside a sporadic spoken word (Brazillian, natch) narrative. There’s a very sophisticated kind of naivety at play here.
Three more brief cuts spin whole new musical worlds from Miles Davis’ brief dalliance with Hermeto Pascoal in the Live Evil/Cellar Door band.
“Fire and Chime” is world jazz out of time, “Olhaluai” an infectious dance set to a vivid cellular head played by Mazurek on cornet and Rohrer on Brazilian fiddle against a Forró rhythm of foot stomps and multi-tracked handclaps. These are the album’s most concentrated moments of perfection. “Of Golden Summer” makes another sudden transition, a lovely almost-song, “ba bah ba-da” verses chanted over a melody plucked out on strings.
Then the album’s closing number, the sixteen-minute “Falling Down From the Sky Like Some Damned Ghost” begins with a looping figure picked out on guitar-like cavaquinho striated with Mellotron and electronics – but before five minutes are up there’s a splice into abstract space, which gives room for Takara’s kit drumming and Granado’s shakers to impose rhythmic shape and impetus on a slowly-evolving, properly psychedelic improvisation, which enfolds chanting and open-form progressive synth playing, and a lovely soliloquy from Mazurek on cornet.
Where Mazurek’s other projects, such as the Chicago Underground and Exploding Star Orchestra, are placeable in the evolving continuum of African-American Jazz, the São Paulo Underground is something genuinely extraordinary.
Rob Mazurek cornet, Mellotron, modular synthesizer, Moog Paraphonic, OP-1; Mauricio Takara drums, cavaquinho, electronics, Moog Werkstatt; Guilherme Granado keyboards, synthesizers, sampler; Thomas Rohrer rabeca, flutes, soprano saxophone, electronics; & all percussion & voice.
Buy Cantos Invisiveis direct from Cuneiform Records’ Bandcamp.