It’s not that much of a stretch to call cornetist and composer Rob Mazurek the Zelig of Chicago’s experimental music scene: he seems to show up everywhere, whether playing with luminaries of the jazz avant-garde like Fred Anderson, Roscoe Mitchell, and Bill Dixon; experimental rockers like Tortoise and Jim O’Rourke; or leading his own groups like the Chicago Underground that distill these diverse musical experiences into Mazurek’s own indelible style.
But while Mazurek is most commonly associated with the music scenes of Chicago, he lived and worked in Brazil from the year 2000 through 2008. It was in Brazil where Mazurek put together his long-running group, Sao Paulo Underground, featuring multi-instrumentalists Mauricio Takara and Guilherme Granado, as well the group’s augmented cousin, Black Cube SP, featuring Swiss string player Thomas Rorer. This past October, Mazurek and Black Cube SP released their latest record, Return the Tides: Ascension Suite and Holy Ghost (Cuneiform). The album was recorded after the death of Rob’s mother Kathleen and is dedicated to her memory and her ever-powerful life force.
This spring, Sao Paulo Underground and Black Cube SP are presenting music from this album on a US tour, and will be stopping by The Jazz Gallery on Saturday, April 11th for two sets. Rob Mazurek was kind enough to answer some questions about his work with these groups from the road via email.
The Jazz Gallery: Can you tell us a little about how you first ended up living and working in Brazil back in 2000? How did the change of scenery affect your artistic interests and output?
Rob Mazurek: I moved to Brazil in 2000. My first wife is Brazilian and a researcher in the Amazon. She was offered a position there so we moved to Manaus, a city in the center of the rain forest. It was thrilling to say the least—a natural and urban wonderland of new sounds and experiences. I have always been interested in collected sound and using this as material for constructing music. I collected sounds of electric eels, screaming monkeys, insects, storm systems, and urban dance music (through over-blown car stereos) in and around Manaus.
TJG: How did you first meet Mauricio and Guilherme? What drew you to their playing and what were your first collaborations with them like?
RM: I met them at a show by the Chicago band The Eternals I was attending in the city of Belo Horizonte. I was surprised that they new my music with Chicago Underground and Isotope 217. They had a genuine interest in what I was doing and we hit it off immediately.
Mauricio invited the Chicago Underground Duo (myself and drummer Chad Taylor) to play in Sao Paulo soon after and I stayed in the city for a few weeks and started the Sao Paulo Underground at that time with Mauricio. Guilherme joined a little later. Their playing is rooted in hardcore, free jazz, psychedelic Brazilian, and traditional musics. We have the same mind set on many levels. I also thought that this combination of synth bass with samplers and keyboards, drums, electronics and cavaquinho, cornet and electronics would be quite an interesting sound.
TJG: What strikes me about much of your music with Sao Paulo Underground is how it reflects both the process of using the compositional possibilities of the studio, and the process of working out different materials spontaneous on the bandstand. Can you talk a little about balancing those two working environments when making music?
RM: Sound is Sound and this is how we approach the making of the stuff. We are all well versed in acoustic and electronic musics and ways of using these things to enhance and build sound worlds. The challenge is to present that in a live setting with the right sound and integrity. We have been developing this for 10 years now, and we’re still trying to balance and project the ideas of fixed sounds and surprising wonder-sound.
TJG: Along those lines, how does the music change when you take it on tour? Are you consciously trying to do new things and go off the map, or are you focusing on playing the material well and seeing what happens in the moment?
RM: We try to stay focused on the music we are presenting. Within this fixed situation, we attempt to explode the form in new ways in a very rigorous and disciplined way. It’s a kind of controlled ecstatic chaos.
TJG: I hear a lot of dichotomies in your music: clear melodic material juxtaposed with gritty noise, deep pockets of groove juxtaposed with sounds untethered from the grid, free-form improvisations within tightly structured pieces. Do you strive for these juxtapositions consciously in your music, or are they just a byproduct of more intuitive musical choices?
RM: The 3 of us are interested in all kinds of sound and music and structures. From Ol’Dirty Bastard to Art Ensemble of Chicago to Chico Buarque to Steve Coleman to Morton Feldman, from Prefuse 73 to Matthew Shipp, from Bill Dixon to Tod Dockstader to William Parker. I think all these influences plus the constant reference of our own unique music makes a heady stew of interesting sounds and textures. We take the compositional ideas and bend them into our own strange sound worlds.
TJG: Your work deals with varying traditions of Chicago experimental music, from the work of Sun Ra to the Art Ensemble of Chicago to Bill Dixon to Tortoise. Why do you think Chicago has been such a fertile environment for the growth of experimental music?
RM: I first heard Sun Ra at the Chicago Jazz Festival in 1981 and the show completely blew me away. That is when I decided I wanted to do this. The influence of Sun Ra, the AACM, the Northside scene,the Southside scene, the post rock scene, the electronic experimental scenes etc… are all strong and have been strong for a long time. I have had the opportunity to play and learn with Jazz Legends who live and lived in Chicago like Jodie Christian, Robert Barry, Ken Prince, Lin Halliday, Earma Thompson, Fred Hopkins, Roscoe Mitchell, Fred Anderson as well as forward thinking experimental rock/electronic situations with Tortoise, Gastr del Sol, Jim O’Rourke, Isotope 217, The Eternals.
The scene in Chicago, just like a lot of major cities, has spawned a collective creative energy that is a pleasure to draw off of and learn and be a part of. There are many venues now to support creation in more experimental music including Constellation, Elastic Arts, Experimental Sound Studio, and so on. You mix that with the still-futuristic thinking of such masters of design in architecture as Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe, Louis Sullivan and the very strong experimental food scene here, spearheaded by such establishments pushing the boundaries of taste as Lula Cafe and Nightwood and you start to realize how Chicago is an important place to be in many respects regarding the experimental.
TJG: Your most recent album with Black Cube SP was written and recorded after the death of your mother Kathleen in May 2013. You’ve spoken in the past about the emotional experience of making the record, but how are you treating the performance of this material on tour? Are you attempting to recreate the feelings from the studio session?
RM: I think it will be quite impossible to play this music the same way in which it was recorded, but the concerts will have this powerful, special energy that my mother passed down to us as she was moving in all directions. I guarantee that.
The Sao Paulo Underground performs at The Jazz Gallery on Saturday, April 11th, 2015. The group features Rob Mazurek on cornet and electronics; Guilherme Granado on keyboards, electronics, sampler, and voice; and Mauricio Takara on percussion, cavaquinho, and electronics. Sets are at 8 and 10 p.m. $22 general admission ($12 for members). Underwriting Support for Rob Mazurek’s Black Cube SP and Sao Paulo Underground is generously provided by the Robert D. Bielecki Foundation. Purchase Tickets Here.