When The Sick Muse interviewed Chicago jazz-fusion sextet Cordoba in 2019, vocalist Brianna Tong talked about the ways improv-based music can be a megaphone for protest movements. “I don’t think it’s revolutionary, but I think it can deepen the things that are in the lyrics of those songs, and provide an outlet to feel more about the song,” she said. “I think it is an important part of people’s radicalization to actually feel about what the fuck is happening, and not just be like this is how it is, it sucks.” Tong speaks from experience: she’s been part of the People’s Lobby and Reclaim Chicago, and was already engaged in organizing and activism when Cordoba began releasing music in 2016. You can feel the intensity she wants to communicate in the irascible clomp of “No Answer,” from Cordoba’s new Specter (Amalgam). And even when Tong’s screams are so garbled that it's impossible to make out individual words, the outrage comes through—and the lyrics that are clear put the capitalist system squarely in her crosshairs (“Why do I have to pay for water . . . and a place to fucking live”).
Cordoba went big for Specter, enlisting Chicago’s Kaia String Quartet and other auxiliary musicians to enrich their ambitious sound. (In that same Sick Muse interview, guitarist Cam Cunningham said, “I want Cordoba to be a Wagnerian experience, without any of the racism.”) But the core members of Cordoba—Tong, Cunningham, multi-instrumentalist Eric Novak, keyboardist Zach Bain-Selbo, bassist Khalyle Hagood, and drummer Zach Upton Davis—have also developed a synchronicity powerful enough that they can actualize most of their grand visions without any help at all. The velvety “Ghosts 1” could smooth-talk its way onto an R&B-heavy playlist made to woo a new flame, and if it can help love happen—or if any song on Specter can—then I’d consider that a positive revolution in this acutely painful year.
Written by Ayethaw Tun for Chicago Reader
Cordoba is a group of politically and socially driven individuals committed to radical social change in resistance to the oppressive systems in place. The six-piece jazz fusion group was brought together inside the walls of the University of Chicago, but has since breached the bubble of higher education by connecting with like-minded musicians in DIY spaces and taking part in direct organization work within Chicago communities. Cordoba has had a steady output since 2016, and their stunning debut LP only further cements their status as one of the best working bands in The Windy City.
Specter arrives in the midst of global hysteria. Cordoba’s first full length is the sound of the walls caving in, when the levees start to break. The album serves as witness to the deluge of gentrification and displacement, underfunding and over-policing; it’s undoubtedly an apocalypse record. While Cordoba predicts what the future may hold once we’ve reached the rubicon, it’s hard not to wonder if we’ve already passed it.
Specter is as much a reflection of the present as it is a premonition of the future. The back-to-back “Ghosts” tracks offer perspective to those who continue to choose to look away from systemic racism and injustice. “You don’t see into, you don’t you don’t/The present I live, you don’t,” Brianna Tong sings, “never stopping for any touch of pain/Never hearing the words we say.” America is built on graves upon graves, embracing its colonial patterns which hold zero regard for human life and instead prioritize production and capital over the basic welfare of its citizens.
“Factory” takes on new meaning in the wake of COVID, as the government refuses to provide reprieve for workers deemed “essential,” offering a measly check in lieu of substantial aid to prevent the spread of disease, poverty and death. “I work at the factory, that means perfection.” A fucky cog? Toss it. Heave the broken widgets back into the rising seas. The track is fluid and driving - it feels like the sum of all parts working together. Zach Bain-Selbo’s atmospheric keys and Eric Novak’s brass and woodwinds punctuate Zach Upton-Davis’ steady drum fills and Khalyle Hagood’s propulsive basslines. Once the Kaia String Quartet enters, the track becomes a smooth transition into the “Mutual Aid” instrumental.
Cordoba’s forward-thinking jazz serves as the foundation for the band’s cinematic elements of hip-hop, soul and punk. Their distinct stylistic fusion is like a sonic watermark, as each member spins their own influence into their dynamic blend of captivating grooves, passionate lyricism and striking improvisation. Guitarist and primary songwriter Cam Cunningham pulls hints of pop and hip-hop into Cordoba’s jazz-inclined arrangements, while Brianna Tong’s vocals layer R&B melodies over the band’s tight and nuanced instrumentation. Specter unravels over the course of its eleven tracks, chipping away at the injustices it seeks to critique. It’s an alarming record, but an important one, capturing the ghosts of the present, future and past.
Written by Patrick Pilch for Post Trash
Chicago jazz-fusion band Cordoba have shared their debut album Specter, out now via Amalgam. It follows their two previous EPs and also features performances from KAIA String Quartet and several local jazz musicians. It’s a socially conscious album, colored with the struggles of marginalized groups and working people in modern-day America, but its intricate arrangements provide solace and joyful zeal. Marked by cutting-edge neo-soul, elegant strings and nimble, scintillating guitar passages, Specter dazzles even in bleak circumstances.
Written by Lizzie Manno for Paste Magazine
A genre-bending sextet from Chicago, Cordoba’s music combines elements of neo-soul, jazz fusion, and hip hop. They have been compared to Hiatus Kaiyote, BADBADNOTGOOD, and Frank Zappa. With roots in Chicago’s DIY scene, the group has become known for its smooth-shifting temporalities and vivid harmonic landscapes. Cordoba was invited to play this year’s SXSW prior to its cancellation due to the pandemic dystopia. They have been profiled in the Chicago Tribune, and their 2018 release, Break the Locks Off Everything New, was one of the Chicago Reader’s best Chicago albums of the 2010s.
The band’s first full-length LP, Specter, was motivated by a deep-seated feeling that the fabric of society is quickly unravelling, and their songs react to issues like gentrification, police brutality, and escalating social unrest. They also reflect on feelings of isolation and anxiety that have only been amplified in this time of pandemic. The album is characterized by the band’s typical off-kilter grooves, nuanced arrangements, and vocal versatility, this time incorporating performances from KAIA String Quartet and a cast of local jazz musicians. Specter will be released on October 30th.
Brianna Tong - Vocals
Eric Novak - Vocals, Saxophone, Flute, Oboe, Bass Clarinet
Cam Cunningham - Guitar
Zach Bain-Selbo - Keys
Khalyle Hagood - Bass
Zach Upton-Davis - Drums
A.ADISA - Vocals on Track 2
Eli Namay - Bass on Track 2
Matt Riggen - Trumpet on Tracks 2, 3, 9, 11
David Fletcher - Trombone on Tracks 2, 3, 9, 11
Kaia String Quartet - Strings on Tracks 2, 5, 7, 9, 11
Tracks 3, 11 written by Cam Cunningham
Tracks 1, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10 written by Cam Cunningham and Brianna Tong
Track 2 written by Cam Cunningham, Brianna Tong, and Asha Adisa
Tracks 4, 9 written by Cam Cunningham and Eric Novak
Live tracked at Jamdek by Doug Malone
Overdubs recorded at Limbic Audio by Zach Bain-Selbo
Mixed by Zach Bain-Selbo
Mastered by Greg Obis