When I first heard of Ray Mazurek it was as an up and coming hard bop trumpet player back in the 90s. Then I discovered his album Synthesthesia and later the sublime Sound Is. So when the folks at Cuneiform asked if I had an interest in checking out the latest released by his São Paulo Underground, I jumped at the opportunity!
In its latest incarnation, SPU is a power trio and a post-modern orchestra rolled into one, marked by glistening sonic textures, seductive eletronica beats, unabashedly beautiful melodies, an expansive improvisational palette and fiercely gleeful interplay. A potent program of new material honed during a 2012 North American tour, “Beija Flors” captures an ensemble hitting a fierce creative stride. Ecstatic, roiling and utterly unpredictable, the music flows from three distinct musical personalities united by “the idea of infinite love, the idea of breaking through to the other side through sonic power and beauty,” says Mazurek, a veteran disrupter of genre conventions.
I love how we are simply launched into the midst of a chaotic proceeding – with ‘Ol’ Dirty Hummingbird’, the listener feels almost like they opened a door where a wailing jam session was in progress. I am reminded of Art Ensemble of Chicago’s ‘Reese & The Smooth Ones’ or Zappa’s ‘Weasels Ripped My Flesh’. There is a sonic intensity that is unsettling yet mesmerizing all at once. As the song progresses there are some passages that are introspective, enharmonic, simple, dense and so on.
The other thing I immediately loved was that this is jazz … yet it isn’t. Or it doesn’t care whether it is or not. There are clear jazz elements, improvisational segments that mark the proceedings as avant-garde, there is rock, funk, electronica, ambient, latin themes and rhythms, and on and on. While there is nothing wrong with ‘mainstream jazz’, the reality is that young musicians today grow up with such a diversity of influences that it actually makes LESS sense when we hear uni-dimensional music than hearing multiple genre elements.
Although this is a trio, there is a tremendous density to the sound owing the wild array of instrumentation. The trio includes Rob Mazurek playing cornet, Evolver, ring modulator, analog delay, and harmonium; Mauricio Takara plays percussion, cavaquinho, and electronics; and Guilherme Granado on keyboards, synthesizer, sampler, and voice.
There are a ton of great songs here – ‘Into the Rising Sun’ has a funky driving beat that evokes elements of many genres, but on top is a great catchy tune with a fun melody and harmonic structure that is wide-open for improvisation. ‘Arnus Nusar’ uses the synth bass and guitar to great effect, reminding me of how Daft Punk worked some rhythmic magic on Kanye West’s new album, but in this case it takes it in a very different direction – in a way also reminding me of some sections of Miles’ Jack Johnson album.
There is also a cover of ‘Over the Rainbow’ that retains the beauty of the melody while wandering well out on the fringes of the harmonic structure in a way that reminds me of Lester Bowie before simply dropping into a minimalist synth cross-fade. The great rhythms and fun melodies continue with ‘Evetch’, which has elements of rock, pop, latin swing, bossa nova, industrial, rave, and who knows what else.
‘Six Handed Casio’ reminds me of elements from the epic Namlook/Schultze ‘Dark Side of the Moog’ series crossed with Nils Peter Molvaer’s Sonic Trance. If you have no idea what that might be like … check out both works, because they are awesome, and so is this song.
The remainder of the album, including ‘Basilio’s Crazy Wedding Song’, ‘A Árvore de Cereja é Ausente’, and ‘Taking Back the Sea Is No Easy Task’ continue the trend of great melodies, engaging rhythms, interesting arrangements and instrumental choices and more. The final two songs (along with a couple of earlier ones) are Takara compositions, with the first reminding me of a John Cage prepared piano piece, but again filtered through a modern aesthetic. The album closes with another strong melodically focused song, but like all of the other Takara songs it is broken into sections that never let you get settled into anything for too long.
My Favorite Song: “The Love I Feel For You Is More Real Than Ever” – there are a number of reasons I love this song, but ultimately it is because it is a gorgeous melody that gets me grooving whenever it comes on. The production is raw – and by that I mean that the instruments seem to be in the red zone of the recording, distorting on the top end, with the growling bass synth, sound effects all over the place, and wild drumming. The intensity of the cornet solo spills over into the broader instrumental segment as things build and build, until they drop to a swirling synth with a final cornet line. Gorgeous.
Would I recommend?: Absolutely! Let me be clear – this review would have been done sooner but the album was not received with open arms by my family on vacation. I played it as we left, and there was just too much ‘outside’ stuff to make it difficult. However, I already knew I loved it, so I have enjoyed it ever since returning. The music demands an open ear and a willingness to deal with the unexpected at every turn, but for fans of modern jazz it is an incredibly rewarding experience. I have been thrilled to hear Rob Mazurek continue to mature with each new project and recording, and can’t wait to hear what he delivers next.
Where to buy: $9.99 on iTunes; also on LP for $21 , CD for $15, and FLAC/MP3 for $9.99 BandCamp (artist makes the most here).
Here is the band playing “The Love I Feel For You Is More Real Than Ever”:
Source: Publisher provided MP3 album