Rob Mazurek has one foot planted north in Chicago and the other south in São Paulo, and he draws from the music of both cities on the atmospheric, exuberant Skull Sessions. Beginning in the '90s, the cornetist became a guiding force in Windy City avant jazz, post-rock, and electronica with the Chicago Underground, Tortoise, and Isotope 217, and he carried his ever inquisitive sensibility to Brazil in the new millennium, forming São Paulo Underground with Mauricio Takara (drums, percussion, cavaquinho -- a Brazilian ukulele) and later Guilherme Granado (keyboards, electronics), both of whom appear on Skull Sessions. Recorded at São Paulo's Teatro do SESC Pinheiros in November 2011, Skull Sessions is a recording by the Rob Mazurek Octet, which in addition to Mazurek, Takara, and Granado features Swiss-born Brazil resident Thomas Rohrer on rabeca (a Brazilian fiddle) and Carlos Issa on guitar and electronics along with three of Mazurek's Chicago collaborators: flutist Nicole Mitchell, vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, and drummer John Herndon. In a sense, one might expand -- at least in spirit -- the band to include the presence of Miles Davis, because Skull Sessions was conceived by Mazurek to be performed in São Paulo in conjunction with the traveling We Want Miles multimedia exhibition and tribute.
As one might expect, Mazurek was not given to rote duplication of Davis' music. Rather, through his own compositions (with some recycling: note the hard boppish melody line of "Vodou Cinque" from the Starlicker album Double Demon that surfaces in "Voodoo and the Petrified Forest"), he captured the spirit of the trumpeter's expansive and even now controversial early- to mid-'70s electric funk-fusion years. That's not to say Mazurek and band don't find touchstones in other portions of Davis' lengthy, ever-changing career, but the four 13- to 17-plus-minute pieces here -- plus the spookily burbling four-and-a-half-minute coda "Keeping the Light Up" -- could be heard as 21st century corollaries to the music heard on Davis' tradition-shattering live albums like Agharta, Pangaea, and Dark Magus. And yet, as Mazurek and Rohrer cut through the sonic storm, balanced by Mitchell's fluttering flute and Adasiewicz's glistening vibraphone, Skull Sessions is in many ways more organic and ebullient, not rooted in '70s urban street funk but instead melding the collective, collaborative improvisational approach of Sun Ra, Chicago's AACM, and Mazurek's own massive Exploding Star Orchestra with driving, celebratory rhythms that speak more strongly of the Southern Hemisphere than the Northern. It would be hard to imagine music more akin to a turbulent river, ebbing and flowing through both roiling rapids and calmer, even serene waters, the musicians in perfect synchronicity even as they rise to assert their individual identities. No ensemble driven by an iron-fisted bandleader could possibly achieve this. A sense emerges that Mazurek traveled to Brazil to learn at least as much as he would teach, one of the results being a fine album like this.