Sanders, Mazurek Form Study in Contrasts at Portugal’s Jazz em Agosto
His slow emergence from the below-ground dressing room gave off an almost eery, otherworldly aura. With his trusty tenor in tow, the man’s long white beard complemented by his all-white dashiki, 73-year-old Pharoah Sanders was a study in contrasts. Headlining with cornetist Rob Mazurek’s Chicago Underground and Sao Paulo Underground trios, Sanders’ presence was offset by Mazurek’s energy and focus in the closing set of the 30th annual Jazz em Agosto festival, held Aug. 2–11 in Lisbon, Portugal. The setting was the stately Open Air Amphitheatre, an arena on the Gulbenkian Foundation park and grounds, and for those filling the semi-circular stone seats, what followed was a mix of history laced with a fierce contemporary edge.
Sanders was supported by the cornetist’s two trios, making for a total of six players, including Guilherme Granado on keyboards and electronics, drummers Mauricio Takara and Chad Taylor, and electric bassist Matthew Lux. Mazurek and Takara were also featured with their own electronics.
Beginning with a free-jazz flourish, the group settled down into what was a recurring pattern of modal progressions with Mazurek and Sanders riffing off each other, Mazurek’s bright tones a sharp contrast to the softer and more melodic sounds coming from Sanders. Eventually, the music’s pulse vanished, replaced by a more free-floating series of exchanges, Mazurek’s more earnest attacks countering Sanders’ easygoing long lines. At this point, one-third of the way into the set, it became apparent that Sanders’ energy level was at odds with the rest of the group, his horn almost submerged as the pace would suddenly quicken. To his credit, Sanders took the band’s call and offered some of his strongest, most aggressive playing of the night. Alternating between resonant tones and his signature screeches, Sanders seemed to favor his more soothing side as the evening progressed. (Read DownBeat’s review of John Zorn and review of other artists who performed at this year’s Jazz em Agosto.)
In what became a kind of extended suite, the music also moved toward a bit of high-octane propulsion with affecting grooves and percussives, helping to accent a more Latin feel and mood. Sanders’ solo work here failed to develop any real flow, his stream-of-consciousness playing bereft of any real beginning, middle and end. Contrast this with Mazurek’s more contemplative vibe, the serenity felt as something created as opposed to contrived. More ebbs and flows followed as Mazurek once again turned up the heat, this time between him and the swelter of electronics and bass touches that went from a meter-less music to a return to a Latin romp and lots of percussion and drums, ending with Takara’s conga solo before everyone returned to the fold.
In this too-long performance of what appeared to be three pieces, Mazurek’s collective Undergrounds—with their more focused energy, youth and detailed arrangements—seemed to be in their own orbit, jamming with or without Sanders. And, in fact, whether pursuing abstraction, finding an incantational groove or howling into the night, Sanders’ spare lines offered a vital color, a different velocity that sometimes worked but seemed to rely too much on familiar ways of mixing beautiful, Afro-centric modalities with that characteristic hell-bent ardor of yore, a more engaged music his younger cohorts no doubt drew inspiration from.
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