Graded on a Curve:
São Paulo Underground,
Cantos Invisíveis

To get the true scoop it’s necessary to dig below the surface; cornetist, composer, and deft collaborator Rob Mazurek knows this well, and together with Mauricio Takara, Guilherme Granado, and Thomas Rohrer he completes the most recent incarnation of the São Paulo Underground. Serving as a beacon of historically-informed modernity, their latest recording Cantos Invisíveis is likely to appeal to lovers of exploratory jazz, fans of electro-acoustic improvisation, adventurous post-rock buffs, and folks keen on global sounds in general. Its vigorous and rewarding fusion is out now on CD and digital through Cuneiform Records.

Although São Paulo Underground succeeds in conjuring a stylistically wide-ranging musical experience, the group simultaneously offers a more specific yet multifaceted sense of place. Much of this attribute relates to the background of Rob Mazurek; known primarily as a Chicago guy, he also has an eight-year stay as a working musician in Brazil under his belt.

That sense of place also concerns the cornetist’s relationship to the here and now; while obviously operating in the present tense, he’s undeniably leaning into the future but with a wealth of knowledge accumulated from the past; steeped in jazz, he’s in no way fenced in by conservative notions of what the music is supposed to represent. Indeed, many ears were introduced to his work not via jazz avenues but through his involvement with the thriving Windy City-based post-rock community, particularly as a member of the Tortoise/ Chicago Underground-splinter group Isotope 217.

Mazurek’s bond to jazz history is a strong one and consistently eludes the predictable, the connection fruitfully expressed through his formation and leadership of the Exploding Star Orchestra; launching from the inspirational interplanetary platform of Sun Ra but without any traces of copycat-ism, the group’s shows and recordings have featured such august guests as Bill Dixon, Fred Anderson, and Roscoe Mitchell.

São Paulo Underground differs from Exploding Star, clearly in size but additionally in the roles the musicians play; alongside Mazurek, Mauricio Takara and Guilherme Granado are both founding members of the ensemble, and the pair are both residents of São Paulo. The diversity of their shared credits, which include founding the post-rock/ math-rock outfit Hurtmold and playing with Naná Vasconcelos, Prefuse 73, Exploding Star Orchestra, and Pharoah Sanders, is integral to São Paulo Underground’s constitution.

As Pharoah and the Underground, the whole outfit has collaborated with Sanders on two very sweet discs, Primative Jupiter and Spiral Mercury, both issued in 2014 by the Clean Feed label. The group’s debut recording, Sauna: Um, Dois, Três, spans back a decade however, with The Principle of Intrusive Relationships following in 2008, both co-released through the Aesthetics and Submarine labels.

Cantos Invisíveis marks their third record for Cuneiform after 2011’s Três Cabaças Loucuras and ‘13’s Beija Flors Velho E Sujo, and is the first with Thomas Rohrer, a native of Switzerland who’s lived in Brazil since 1995. Having studied in the Jazz Department at the University of Lucerne (playing violin and saxophone), Rohrer is now ranked as a master of the keening rabeca (Brazilian viola) and has improvised extensively with collaborators including Phil Minton, John Edwards, Yusef Lateef, and in Mazurek’s group Black Cube SP on 2014’s excellent Return the Tides: Ascension Suite and Holy Ghost.

Mazurek’s extensive Brazilian residency brings São Paulo Underground into the vicinity of a regional band, echoing the various lineups of the Chicago Underground Collective (duo, trio, quartet, etc.) that feature Mazurek. Given the name this gang of multi-instrumentalists chose that might seem a redundant statement, but when considering the cross-genre and map-spanning qualities intrinsic to their discography it’s worth reemphasizing the local-global give and take.

With Cantos Invisíveis the band shows no signs of creative fatigue. Opener “Estrada Para o Oeste,” the first of the disc’s two extended tracks at nearly 14 minutes, opens with a loose march infused with suspenseful sci-fi-like touches. An electronic showcase fueled by an ebb and flow of intensity that’s almost cinematic, nearly six minutes unfurl before the sound of Mazurek’s cornet arrives in the mix.

His belated entry reinforces the goal of collectivity over hierarchy, though there is plenty of room for individualism, particularly in how the horn moves from abstraction to melody to accenting a gradually rising tension as “Estrada Para o Oeste” nears its conclusion; the piece ends with a group vocal chant nicely complementing the march-like vibe established at the start.

The brief percussion and horn excursion “Violent Orchid Parade” follows, its celebratory zest a prelude to the lengthier and less urgent (if ultimately no less potent) unfolding of “Cambodian Street Carnival.” The descriptive titles underscore a dedication to exploring the mingling of music and social activity from various points on the globe, but the spurts of electronics at the beginning of “Lost Corners Boogie” help to alleviate any potential sense of cultural appropriation.

In due time an off-kilter, vaguely robotic groove coalesces only to loosen back up as it leads into the undulating retro-futurism, spoken Portuguese and varied cornet musings of “Desisto II,” with everything accompanied by Takara’s restless drum. “Fire and Chime” fuses free jazz abstraction and post-rock atmosphere, and while over a bit to quickly, it segues into the downright festive horn-rhythm beauty move of “Olhaluai.”

With its recurring ’70s-AM-radio-on-Mars brass melody, ripples of electronics, unflagging keyboard patterns, and frankly unexpected surf-pop-doo wop vocal harmony, “Of Golden Summer” offers a new kind of fusion from the rudiments of the old, and is unusual and accessible (though it might irritate a few stern jazzbos) all at once.

Chalking up over 16 minutes, the multitiered (and excellently titled) “Falling Down from the Sky Like Some Damned Ghost” is a platform for São Paulo Underground at their most ambitious, providing ample room for all the players to shine, especially Takara with a fiery workout behind the kit; it lends the disc a solid finale. Even with a running-time exceeding an hour, Cantos Invisíveis leaves this writer wanting more, and that’s an impressive feat.


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