Graded on a Curve:
Mako Sica/Hamid Drake, Ronda

When jazz meets rock in the form of collaboration, the results are often well-intentioned and admirable but ultimately inessential. This is not the case with Ronda, which finds the expansive Chicago rock trio Mako Sica syncing up with the great percussionist Hamid Drake across four sides of vinyl. While Drake has extensive experience in jazz’s avant-free zone, the music here gravitates toward the gist of Mako Sica’s bag; amid an approach that’s reliably psychedelic, but with sharper than the average musicality, there are wordless vocals, guitar, occasional horns, and beaucoup rhythm. Intensity does build, but it’s with subtlety and gracefulness of interaction. It’s out now in an edition of 500 through Feeding Tube.

Mako Sica have been described as free-rock, but also desert rock, and the latter is a nice entry point into the sound offered on Ronda. Formed in 2007 by multi-instrumentalists Przemyslaw Drazek and Michael Kendrick (both formerly of the band Rope, who issued a couple of albums in the ’00s on Family Vineyard) plus Brent Fuscaldo, they don’t really specialize in freaking, spazzing, or even skronking.

However, they do like to drift and go deep, and can get heavy without underlining it. Through an ample discography including 2009’s Mayday at Strobe, the next year’s Dual Horizon, 2012’s Essence and last year’s Invocation (all LPs augmented by some cassette action and a split 12-inch with Zelienople), they can deftly inhabit established rock modes and make ‘em feel exciting rather than trite. Prior to the recording of the Renewal tape in 2015, Kendrick exited and Chaetan Newell joined, and so the lineup’s been since.

If Mako Sica’s output is plentiful, that’s in rock terms; compared to their partner in Ronda Hamid Drake, it’s tiny. This is standard for jazz, but what’s not so typical is the breadth of Drake’s recorded work both as an ensemble player and leader. Born in Monroe, LA, like Mako Sica, Drake is a resident of Chicago, first hitting record in the groups of the late saxophonist Fred Anderson, though he gets around so much that it might be better to describe him as a citizen of the world.

A beneficiary of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, Drake has played and/ or recorded with Don Cherry, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Sheep, John Tchicai, David Murray, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Marylin Crispell, Johnny Dyani, Dewey Redman, fellow Chicagoans Joe McPhee, George Lewis and Joseph Jarman, extensively with William Parker and Peter Brötzmann (Live at the Empty Bottle from the trio of Brötzmann, Drake and Kent Kessler is a personal favorite), as well as exploring African music in the Mandingo Griot Society and reggae with Lee Perry.

Ronda features a pair of lengthy pieces on its first LP, chases them with two shorter excursions on side three, and goes lengthy one more time. Opener “Dance with Waves” begins with Fuscaldo’s wordless vocals, a distinctive mantra-like element in Mako Sica’s sound, but here initially (and impressively) nearer to the balladic.

It’s not long before he and his bandmates locate an inviting groove. Mako Sica’s music has drawn comparisons to Bitchin Bajas, Joshua Abrams’ Natural Information Society, Sun City Girls, later Earth, Group Doueh, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and even The Art Ensemble of Chicago, but here with Drake they settle into a zone that’s tangibly reminiscent of Malian desert blues.

But they don’t stay there for long, as electric piano, vibe-like bells and trumpet help usher in a redirect toward a blending of spacey psychedelia and jazzy searching. Nothing gets harried, though there is a crescendo nicely utilizing grand piano as a groove, this time less desert bluesy, gets established once again. Following another structural loosening, there are understated interjections reminiscent of free improv.

Those amenable to psych and even abstraction but hesitant over free jazz wig-out should be able to cozy up to Ronda just fine. The second side-long piece “Emanation” does commence in a jazzier place before settling into a fine mingling of kosmische and psych. The presence of piano and Fuscaldo’s voice do maintain a spiritual jazz-ish thread (heightened by more brass), but then much of what unfolds carries the slight feel of ’70s Germany (Mako Sica have also been compared to Amon Düül).

The first LP’s tracks were recorded at Chicago’s Electrical Audio and presented a wider array of instruments than usual. It’s important to note that the trio’s other recordings do feature drums, and during this teaming with Drake (who’s credited with drum, tabla, and frame drum) both Newell and Fuscaldo contribute percussion. But both “The Greatest Gift” and “The Old Book” were recorded in the pairing’s initial studio encounter in the Windy City’s Jamdek facility (Mako Sica and Drake had previously played live together at the venue Constellation).

Those selections and “The Wu Wei” (also from the Jamdek session) define the roles a little more sharply, and that’s cool. Also swell is the inclusion of upright bass, which undeniably accentuates the jazz feel, though this is still far from any kind of ordinary fusion. The edgy trumpet at the start of “The Old Book” can suggest that all hell is about to break loose, but then it doesn’t, instead dishing an engaging Eastern atmosphere (at a little shy of six minutes, it’s also the set’s shortest track), with the worldliness continuing at the outset of “The Wu Wei.”

If more tightly constructed, the introduction of flute along with more trumpet and later in some monk-like chanting and a fine culminating rhythmic punch continues to broaden the range. The outcome is a fully satisfying if not jaw-dropping experience, as Ronda connects with potency throughout and wholly supports the creative union of Mako Sica and Hamid Drake.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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