The genius of Rob Mazurek doesn’t necessarily lie in all the musical ideas he has; it’s the modular approach he takes to those ideas. The Chicago cornetist, bandleader and composer has so many building blocks from projects he’s instigated since the original Chicago Underground Orchestra in 1998, that all he has to do is hybridize two or more existing ensembles to create a new one that carries with it a new conception for music. So to provide recent examples, the Starlicker trio is a runt version of his Sound Is quintet and the Rob Mazurek Pulsar Quartet borrows the rhythm section from The Exploding Star Orchestra and added a pianist to the mix. Broadly speaking, his projects have been defined by the size and makeup of the band, and whether it’s all acoustic or electro-acoustic.
Skull Sessions introduces yet another new ensemble, the Rob Mazurek Octet, and this one is one of his larger, electro-acoustic bands. But there’s more to it then just that, else that would be simply the Exploding Star Orchestra. Instead, Mazarek also bashed cultures together as he’s combined key members of the Exploding Star Orchestra with his Brazilian based band the São Paulo Underground. Nicole Mitchell (piccolo, flute, voice), John Herndon (drums) and Jason Adasiewicz (vibraphone) are culled from the ESO, while Mauricio Takara (cavaquinho, percussion), Guilherme Granado (keyboards, electronics) come from the São Paulo Underground and Thomas Rohrer (rabeca, C melody saxophone), Carlos Issa (guitar, electronics) are a couple of avant artists out of São Paulo as well.
The whole thing was recorded live in São Paulo over a couple of days, at the SESC Pinheiros Theatre a couple of Novembers ago. Nearly all the crowd noise has been adroitly weeded out, but not the energy and cohesiveness of the stage performances. The whole cacophony often sounds like a slow moving dense mass of noise from a distance. Up close, the layers, the dynamism among those layers and the breathing nature of this beast becomes evident; Mazurek built a machine that might look a little unkempt but it’s a powerful machine loaded with artistic expression.
Not just personnel are reconfigured and recombined, but older songs are repurposed, too. Mazurek originally conceived “Galactic Ice Skeleton” for ESO, while “Voodoo and the Petrified Forest” and “Skull Caves of Alderon” were Starlicker songs. To take an example, both versions of “Skull Cave” does share Adasiewicz’s harmonic development and Herndon’s backbeat, and the Mazarek’s theme is also replicated on the São Paulo stage, but over the course of the song, the divergence from the original gets wider and wider as Rohrer’s fiddle-like rabeca competes with Mitchell for solo space and another Brazilian pattern and figure emerges. The hometown boys make the whole song appear that it was derived from where they live, not Chicago. Not to mention that when the band builds up to climaxes, it’s louder and more ferocious; Issa’s noise music that he’s known for comes out in full showing in the form of his unhinged metal guitar.
“Voodoo” gets Brazilian-ized, too, most obviously by the rhythms. Mitchell and Issa create some crazy primal sounds together as Takara on percussion joins Herndon to form an explosive jungle beat. That relentless pulse is the only constant in a churning horde of sounds with solos fading in and out. The sonic blob recedes just enough for Mazurek solo open horned and with calculating impact as Mitchell’s whoops and hollers punctuate his lines. “Galactic Ice Skeleton,” which starts the set, commences 60s sci-fi electro noises blended in with acoustic instruments. Nonetheless, the song moves into what is modern jazz at its core, but with textures and layers like an orchestral arrangement. Mitchell’s piccolo soars above mass of sound, and Herndon is multi-rhythmically stormy. That rabeca, a rustic sort of Brazilian viola, sounds like a runaway violin on this song, and Adasiewicz and Mazurek also turn in strong solos.
There are some uncongested moments, too. “Passing Light Screams” features Issa and Adasiewicz creating spaced out splotches of bright alien noises. It’s both textural and improvisational, a rare combination to get right simultaneously. Timekeeping does exist as the music is pretty free and spacious. A gorgeous segment in the middle features just Mazurek and Adasiewicz; the cornetist gets urgent with his delivery and other times, doleful, as he uses what sounds like Latin phrasing. Gradually, things get denser, and a new melodic theme floats in and out of focus amidst the building mass of sound. Electronics lurk on the bottom layer and finally as the song is reaching its end, a metronomic pulse emerges right at the end.
Brazilian music and American jazz has been successfully combined at least since Stan Getz got together with Jiao Gilberto in the early 60s. But having lived in that country for eight years, Rob Mazurek got himself very familiar with not only Brazilian jazz, but also its fringe elements. He and his Octet are doing to improvised, avant-garde jazz what Getz and Gilberto did with mainstream jazz and mainstream Brazilian music.
Skull Sessions was released January 29, by Cuneiform Records.