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Pharoah & The Underground: Spiral Mercury

Karl Ackermann By

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With Pharaoh & the Underground we have two generations of musicians whose common bond is their greatness. Tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders—heir to his friend and colleague John Coltrane—and Rob Mazurek, the most inventive cornetist since Louis Armstrong are captured together on Spiral Mercury . The album is a document of a 2013 concert, one of the live performances Mazurek and Sanders have been collaborating on for several years. The two are joined by Mazurek colleagues from various groups; percussionist Maurício Takara from Sao Paulo Underground, bassist Matt Lux—of the Pulsar Quartet—and drummer Chad Taylor from the Chicago Underground collective. Rounding out the sextet is multi-instrumentalist Guilherme Granado who has appeared in several of Mazurek's many groups.

Despite the billing, Spiral Mercury is clearly Mazurek's domain with Sanders in a supporting—but influential—role. Sanders demonstrates that he remains more than capable of invoking the inspiration of Albert Ayler, a significant role model in his earlier pioneering of the free jazz movement. It's a fitting compliment to Mazurek's endlessly inventive explorations but Sanders has ample time on this seventy-seven minute recording to explore the mystical seer role he's carried over from the days of classic works like Tauhid (UMG Recordings, 1966).

Spiral Mercury is the kind of high-energy mix of ideas that have become synonymous with Mazurek. The free association of concepts blend and clash as on the asynchronous opener "Gna Toom." Sanders occasionally incorporates a melody into his freely improvised tenor lines, often in contrast to Mazurek's more frenetic contributions. The title track begins with a synthesized folk melody building in intensity and speed, and displaying the influence of São Paulo Underground. Sanders breaks in with a more soulful arc but only briefly, as the piece returns to free form. Taylor and Lux provide an anchor that keeps "Blue Sparks from Her" grounded even as Sanders and Mazurek continue to take contrary paths. This piece, originally recorded on the Chicago Underground Duo's Synesthesia (Thrill Jockey, 2000), is perfect opportunity to meld the approaches of the various Mazurek's groups represented here.

"Pigeon" and "Jagoda's Dream," originally from Sao Paulo Underground's Três Cabeças Loucuras (Cuneiform Records, 2011), are given a fresh perspective here with the former being the standout piece on Spiral Mercury . With a more restless nature, the piece takes on a new urgency and stands it apart from the original version. "The Ghost Zoo" closes the program with a mash-up of electronica, free improvisation and some blistering solos. Throughout Spiral Mercury Sanders and Mazurek are acutely attuned to each other's rhythmic sensitivities and Mazurek consistently demonstrates that one of his greatest strengths is ability to freely improvise all around existing structures without sacrificing musicality.

Mazurek has long threatened the direction of music while accepting its humanity. He can tell his stories with both affirmation and antagonism yet there is a thoughtfulness that keeps his process from outright ferocity. Though he is constantly pushing the envelope and re-tooling the characteristics of sound, he has always practiced a restraint that makes most of his work accessible. Sanders plays as though he is having the time of his life in such a free setting again. Mazurek and Sanders work well together and as an ongoing experiment, one would certainly hope for more.

Track Listing: Gna Toom; Spiral Mercury; Blue Sparks from Her; Asasumamehn; Pigeon; Jagoda's Dream; The Ghost Zoo.

Personnel: Pharoah Sanders: saxophones; Rob Mazurek: cornet, electronics; Chad Taylor: drums; Matt Lux: electric bass, guitar; Guilherme Granado: keyboards, vibraphone, marimba; Maurício Takara: percussion, electronics, cavaquinho.

Title: Spiral Mercury | Year Released: 2014 | Record Label: Clean Feed Records

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