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Chicago/Sao Paulo Underground Featuring Pharoah Sanders: Pharoah & the Underground: Spiral Mercury

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Unlike many of his contemporaries, saxophonist Pharoah Sanders has never hesitated to embrace new technological trends, nor has he seemed to worry much about high art/low art distinctions. So it shouldn’t be surprising that this set, recorded live at the Jazz em Agosto Festival in Lisbon in 2013, finds him insinuating himself into the acoustic/electronic maelstrom generated by cornet player Rob Mazurek and his cohorts: bassist Matthew Lux and drum-

mer Chad Taylor, both from Chicago, along with Brazilian electronica/percussion outcats Mauricio Takara and Guilherme Granado.

The overall feel here is of remarkable coherence; in fact, it’s occasionally difficult to tell exactly which music is emanating from which player (the liner notes credit various band members with “electronics,” “synths” and “samples,” along with the conventional instruments played primarily by Sanders and the Chicagoans). Sanders is in peak form, caustic yet radiant, occasionally softening into prayer-like tranquility before exploding into his trademark overtone shrieks with his distinctive meld of earnest playfulness, improvisational boldness and spiritual uplift. Mazurek, for all his virtuosity, never shows off; even at his most unfettered he sounds focused and thoughtful. Lux and Taylor, meanwhile, don’t focus on rhythm as much as texture, filling spaces within time rather than keeping time.

The electronics-alternately serene, abrasive and cartoonish, depending on the musical and thematic demands of the moment-widen the sonic expanse rather than clutter it. They’re effectively balanced with the organic tonalities of the physical instruments, even if some veteran avant-garde fans might long for the days when a master of tonal manipulation like Sanders could create many of these same effects with nothing more than breath, mind and fingers.

Originally Published