São Paulo Underground is a band led by cornet player Rob Mazurek (Chicago Underground, Isotope 217, Exploding Star Orchestra, Mandarin Movie); Três Cabeças Loucuras is their third release, and their debut for the Cuneiform label, following 2006’s Sauna: Um, Dois, Três and 2009’s The Principle of Intrusive Relationships, both on the Aesthetics label. The first album was a duo effort by Mazurek and Mauricio Takara, with guests like drummer Chad Taylor, Town & Country bassist Josh Abrams, and multi-instrumentalist Tiago Mesquita, among others. The second saw the arrival of Guilherme Granado and Richard Ribeiro as full-time band members, both of whom appear on this disc as well. There are several guests on Três Cabeças Loucuras, too: guitarist/vocalist Kiko Dinucci appears on a few tracks, and vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, bassist Matthew Lux and drummer John Herndon all play on one track, “Six Six Eight” (Adasiewicz and Herndon are also heard on “Just Lovin'”).
Takara, Granado and Ribeiro are all percussionists, but each man contributes something else as well (sometimes multiple things), like keyboards, looped samples, vocals, or the cavaquinho (a small Brazilian guitar not that different from the cuatro). The result is a music filled with buzz and clatter, with Mazurek’s smeary, sometimes electronically manipulated horn meandering through the center of the sonic jungle. Melodies emerge like the harmony between multiple music boxes playing different but complementary songs at once, intricate polyrhythms gradually emerging like a huge system of tiny gears clicking into place. It’s got almost nothing to do with the common perception of Brazilian music (lilting, breezy, ephemeral); it sounds more like Battles attempting to interpret pieces from Miles Davis‘s Agharta.
This overt prettiness is a relatively new development for São Paulo Underground. The Principle of Intrusive Relationships was a much noisier, uglier record, dense and stormy at times (“Final Feliz”) and clattery and loop-driven, almost Autechre-esque, at others (the two-part “Barulho de Ponteiro,” which dissolves in its second half into what sounds like synths from a Pink Floyd bootleg circa 1971 layered over a fuzzed-out breakbeat). Três Cabeças Loucuras is much more light-hearted and fun, running through its eight tracks in a compact 38 minutes; it’s practically an EP. But that concision is a virtue, allowing the group to explore ideas in compelling ways but stop before they become boring. The album, like its two predecessors, is absolutely a studio creation, and consequently avoids the enervating sprawl of too much live improvised music. Mazurek and his partners know when—and how—to leave the listener wanting more. This CD is like a single cookie, gone almost before you know it but leaving nothing but pleasant memories behind.