You want Miles? I give you Rob.
Well, it figures. Listening to Skull Sessions immediately makes one think of Bitches Brew, the Miles Davis 1970 album that signalled the tidal wave of fusion to come in the jazz ocean. Perhaps it's the use of an electric piano, a disregard for traditional shapes and forms in jazz or the fact that the ensemble just moves as one big hurricane through space, but an album like Rob Mazruek's Skull Sessions can't help but summon the ghosts of the trumpet's prince of darkness. When I looked into how this album came about, I found out it was a sort-of commissioned work for the We Want Miles exhibition at SESC (Serviço Social do Comércio) in São Paulo. And with Mazurek being the total original that he is, he naturally passed on the opportunity to cover the music of Miles Davis. Instead, he chose to pay homage to the man through his own style. For crying out loud, there's even a track called "Voodoo and the Petrified Forest"!
Skull Sessions is the first album by Mazurek's new octet, though he has worked with many of these people before in other circumstances. Flautist Nicole Mitchell and vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz have been nearly constant partners in Mazurek's career lately. In addition to them there is Mauricio Takara on percussion, Guilherme Granado on keyboards, John Herndon on drums, Thomas Rohrer on saxophone and Carlos Issa on guitar. It's like a Brazil-meets-Chicago band, united in their love for Miles.
Having fronted the Exploding Star Orchestra and Starlicker, Rob Mazurek has grown accustomed to giving his compositions an out-of-this-world flair. Adasiewicz's vibes in particular provide a backdrop of weightlessness as even Herndon himself just can't bring himself to make the music "swing". And I doubt those were his orders in the first place. There is a brief moment in "Voodoo and the Petrified Forest" where the wind instruments play a boppy melody figure, momentarily returning the piece to Earth. This doesn't last long. "Galactic Ice Skeleton", which is a galactic mess, segues into ""Voodoo and the Petrified Forest", creating a solid 32 minutes of fusion confusion in which the listener can lose themselves.
Yes, Skull Sessions is long. Its five tracks span more than an hour. This is what happens when you ask a maverick cornetist from the windy city to pay homage to Miles Davis at a Brazilian function. The results are wonderfully anchorless, some that find all eight members trusting the musical tuition of the other seven to take the music wherever the music intends. For instance, everyone knows to treat "Passing Light Screams" more delicately, like it were from the In A Silent Way sessions. That is, until they get to the screaming part. Somewhere around the 11 minute mark, Pandora's box is opened and out comes the screaming light. I can't help but think of the melting faces at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
As Skull Sessions winds down with "Skull Caves of Alderon" and "Keeping the Light Up", things become even more chaotic and difficult to understand. What starts off as more Bitches Brew teasing turns into something almost resembling hard rock. Free jazz then swallows Issa's guitar, spitting out the baffled and empty cosmos, the kind that Charles Ives mocked in "The Unanswered Question". "Keep the Light Up" becomes less of a command and more of a reluctant suggestion. This force of lights burned too brightly, but it did not burn itself out entirely. We only need to take a look back on Rob Mazurek's career to understand that he never does such a thing.