Pharoah & The Underground – Spiral Mercury (CF 301)
Spiral Mercury (Clean Feed) documents a live performance by a group led by Rob Mazurek, with onetime Coltrane sparring partner, original astro traveller and transcriber of the creator’s master plan, tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders prominent in the front line.
While Sanders understandably gets top billing and the lion’s share of kudos, all of the material for this date was composed by cornettist and bandleader, and the ensemble’s other members are all involved in one or other of Mazurek’s Underground Ensembles: Chad Taylor’s the mainstay of the Chicago chapter, Guilherme Granado and Mauricio Takara ditto for São Paulo. Matthew Lux played alongside Mazurek in collaborative powerhouse ensemble Mandarin Movie, and he’s also in Mazurek’s Exploding Star project.
Spiral Mercury documents the set this occasional ensemble played to close the 2013 Jazz em Agosto festival in Portugal.
“Gna Toom” drops the listener straight into a long, contemplative exchange between Sanders and Mazurek, with Matthew Lux playing counterpoint electric bass as Granado’s synths create dazzling aurora coloratura. Drummer Chad Taylor’s emphatic swing uptempo on a cushion of thrumming bass signals a transition to the title movement, briefly taking joint lead with Takara’s cavaquinho. Processing renders this Brazilian ukulele wired, electric. Both maintain parallel threads of variation. A one-off twist of harmolodic melody, straight from Blood Ulmer’s Music Revelation songbook, precedes the first full-throated lead spot for Sanders, and Mazurek responds with an energised solo played out in a three-way with synths and percussion.
Sanders invests his tenor sax with an inimitably characteristic emotive sound. His rich, vocal tone can rise to reedy ululations, or drop to a sandpapered burr. Though his fiercest playing is surely behind him, his innate musicality, and his ability to trace and extrapolate melodic figures from the grain of any ensemble music are heard here to full effect.
“Blue Sparks from Her” begins with Mazurek’s processed cornet pealing out of an electro-acoustic haze. But a repeat figure from the cavaquinho invites pulsing bass and another buoyant rhythm with swing feel, and the piece consolidates as a limber, propulsive number with fine lead soloing and synths in electric piano mode. Mazurek and Sanders’ ravishing tonal blend is emphasised on the breakdown, illuminated by glinting mbira (thumb piano).
Chad Taylor’s mbira carries a transition into the gorgeously low-key “Asasumamehn”, shaded first by Sanders then Mazurek. This piece initially evokes Sander’s playing with Moroccan musicians, but becomes ever more abstract and evanescent before the gradual transition to “Pigeon”. Here, the rich electro-acoustic processing of Mazurek’s cornet tips the hat to former collaborator Bill Dixon. A subsequent percussion workout breaks into an uptempo groove on a dirty electronic organ riff, studded with sintir (Moroccan Gnawa)-like bass.
Both “Pigeon” and “Jagoda’s Dream” were first heard in very different versions on Sao Paulo Underground‘s Três Cabeças Loucuras (2011, Cuneiform Records). The latter reprises the present set’s predominantly limber, propulsive feel, with the cavaquinho playing off against clavinet-style keys at the next transition, this to the closing movement, where Mazurek’s solo flute again invokes Morocco.
“The Ghost Zoo” initially sets Sanders, at his most brittle, in a dreamlike, changeable cloud of electronics. Mazurek essays a vocal mantra before prompting an oddly modulated passage of free-form experimentation with a switch to cornet. The entropic abstraction, and an absence of rhythmic momentum at the close leaves the music open-ended, and the listener’s ears pricked and receptive.
This is a great set, and it’s good to have Sanders sounding so fine, in such simpatico company, a full half century into his creative evolution.
As for Mazurek, well it’s hard to keep up with Mazurek. In only the five years between two other recent sessions with notable guests—Bill Dixon with Exploding Star Orchestra (Thrill Jockey) in 2008 and Rob Mazurek Exploding Star Orchestra Featuring Roscoe Mitchell” (Rogue Art) in 2013—he generated at least fifteen other titles, notably Skull Sessions and Beija Flors Velho E Sujo, also reviewed here.