Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Spiral Mercury Chicago/Sao Paulo Underground's "Pharaoh & The Underground"

Pharaoh Sanders was on the first jazz record I ever bought: John Coltrane's Ascension. On that epochal, structured collective improvisation, one of the solo voices that stood out the most from the general cacophony was the Arkansas-born tenor saxophonist's squalling cry, which sounded like nothing so much as the sound of a soul struggling to break free from bondage -- which made it very appropriate to its time (1965). On Trane's Meditations from the following year, the combination of Sanders' gritty roar with the dueling drumkits of Elvin Jones and Rashied Ali provided a musical simulacrum of an erupting volcano. On subsequent Coltrane dates like Live In Seattle, the former Sun Ra sideman pushed Ohnedaruth even further (a friend refers to Live At the Village Vanguard Again as sounding as if all the participants were on "really bad heroin").

His own dates tended to be more monochromatic, but 1967's Tauhid introduced the world to the firestorm that was Sonny Sharrock's guitar, and was cited as an influence by Detroit psychedelic proto-punks the Stooges and MC5. In the '70s, he veered off into the realm of commercial R&B-jazz purveyed by his former sidemen Lonnie Liston-Smith and Norman Connors before dropping from sight. He resurfaced in 1991 on Sharrock's Ask the Ages a highly atypical Bill Laswell production that evoked the "classic" Coltrane of A Love Supreme and Crescent with a quartet that featured Elvin Jones stoking the fires of Sharrock and Sanders' solo voices.

Now Sanders is the featured soloist on this new release from Clean Feed, the Portuguese label notable for its steady stream of high-quality, forward-looking music which, broadly speaking, absorbs the influence of post-Coltrane/AACM '70s jazz, European free improvisation, and contemporary classical music in interesting and distinctive ways. Pharoah & The Underground matches him with a mixed ensemble of Americans and Brazilians, who summon the spirit of Miles' '70s band one minute, Don Cherry's (another '60s collaborator of Pharaoh's) European ensembles the next.

While Pharaoh's name is up front, the date really belongs to Rob Mazurek, who composed all the pieces and whose cornet alternately spits staccato streams and sings with burnished lyricism. Mauricio Takara's cavaquinho (a four-stringed instrument that resembles a cross between a ukelele and a classical guitar) sounds for all the world like nothing so much as '60s Sharrock. Guilherme Granado's synth grounds the music firmly in the now, while drummer Chad Taylor's mbira evokes ancient empires. Together, the ensemble creates an aura of dark, dreamlike mystery that makes for an intriguing listen. Pharaoh's voice is still highly distinctive. It'd be ace if Clean Feed (or anyone) could give him another date where we can hear more of what he has to say in 2014.


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