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São Paulo Underground isn’t just an international musical conspiracy. It’s an electronica-laced Tropicalia funhouse, a secret passage between Chicago’s volatile avant garde jazz scene and Brazil’s teeming creative capital, an intoxicating state of mind where Sun Ra lays down in a field of giant poppies with Ol’ Dirty Bastard to debate whether the Wizard of Oz is full of juke or jive.
Featuring Chicago improv maestro Rob Mazurek on cornet, harmonium and various effects, and São Paulo’s Guilherme Granado on keyboards, synths, sampler and vocals, and Mauricio Takara on percussion, cavaquinho and electronics, SPU delivers its fourth revelatory album 'Beija Flors Velho E Sujo'. Slated for release on June 4, the album is SPU’s second album for Cuneiform (Mazurek’s new label Infinity Dogs Records is co-releasing the “Beija Flors” LP with Cuneiform).
In its latest incarnation, SPU is a power trio and a post-modern orchestra rolled into one, marked by glistening sonic textures, seductive eletronica beats, unabashedly beautiful melodies, an expansive improvisational palette and fiercely gleeful interplay. A potent program of new material honed during a 2012 North American tour, “Beija Flors” captures an ensemble hitting a fierce creative stride. Ecstatic, roiling and utterly unpredictable, the music flows from three distinct musical personalities united by “the idea of infinite love, the idea of breaking through to the other side through sonic power and beauty,” says Mazurek, a veteran disrupter of genre conventions.
Rather than stretching out for extended improvisational flights, the trio delivers a series of brief blasts, each brimming with musical incident. “Beija Flors” explodes from the first track with the audacious “Ol’ Dirty Hummingbird,” an uproarious, disorienting free for all that opens up to reveal hidden depths, with a series of stately processions led by muted cornet and ambient synth. As the piece mysteriously circles back to the beginning, hinting at infinite returns, the trio reveals its trickster heart, “a real tribute to the master Ol’ Dirty Bastard,” Mazurek says.
SPU offers a loving embrace of another inscrutable sonic explorer with “ArNus NusAr,” a slow accumulation of celestial sounds that quickly attain self-sustaining gravitational force. The album’s longest track is a spiraling episodic journey that gradually segues into Harold Arlen’s immortal theme of dreamy, utopian displacement, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” a development as surprising as it is through-the-looking-glass appropriate.
The celebratory “Evetch,” a brief Carnival theme powered by Takara’s supple, twangy cavaquinho, is a booty shake in honor of the powerhouse Bahian axé star Ivete Sangalo, “an absolute de-construction and re-fitting of what is possible when a melody is let loose with tigers hot on the trail,” Mazurek says.
“Basilio's Crazy Wedding Song,” a swaggering tune conceived for the director of Sardinia’s Santa Anna Arressi Jazz Festival, surges with fecund energy. The tune crests with “a joyous rhythm that could be straight out of a Mickey Spillane story if it took place on an a tropical island in Nowheresville,” Mazurek says. The album roars to a close with “Taking Back the Sea is No Easy Task,” a piece that bucks, snorts, and gallops “over the side of an abyss that SPU thrives on,” Mazurek says. “It’s the constant idea of beauty and de-composition in the most beautiful of ways, like an African violet making love to a coca leaf.”
The São Paulo Underground was born in the first year of Mazurek’s long Brazilian sojourn, when he met Takara, the group’s co-founder. Built upon their duo, SPU released its mindbending debut with 2006’s Sauna Um Dois Tres (Aesthetics Records), a session that established the ensemble as a singular São Paulo/Chicago axis, with contributions by Hurtmold, Marcos Axe, Tiago Mesquita, Wayne Montana, Damon Locks, Josh Abrams, and Chad Taylor. Following up with 2008’s Principle of Intrusive Relationships (Aesthetics Records), the band expanded to a quartet with Guilherme Granado and drummer Richard Ribeiro. By the time the group recorded its 2011 Cuneiform debut Três Cabeças Loucuras, Ribeiro was gone and SPU took its present form as an expansive trio.
Dauntless sonic explorers, SPU continues a relentless search into the mysteries of sound. “Sound has such potential, and needs to be split, cracked, slammed, caressed, kissed, sunk, buried, catapulted into new dimensions in order to begin a dialogue of the universes,” Mazurek says. “What is hidden is more powerful sometimes than what is actually heard, the energy accumulated over time and thought and action. The power for the sound comes through when you take the simple particle of the thing and radically transform it through beauty and noise and time and everything between to project flocks of birds into the blue sky.”