Cordoba Fight State-Sanctioned Violence With Experimental Jazz in ‘Specter’

Cordoba fight state-sanctioned violence with experimental jazz in Specter, their sweeping, soulful new album. It’s the Chicago sextet’s debut full-length LP, and its eleven tracks bristle with a restlessness that reflects the band’s collaborative, often improvisational approach.

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Specter is motivated by a deep-seated feeling that the fabric of society is quickly unravelling, and the songs react to issues like gentrification, police brutality, and escalating social unrest,” the band says in a statement. “We also reflect on feelings of isolation and anxiety that have only been amplified in this time of pandemic. For this album, we were really excited to be joined by … a cast of killer jazz musicians from Chicago’s local scene.”

Cordoba started releasing music in 2016 and currently consists of vocalist Brianna Tong, vocalist / multi-instrumentalist Eric Novak, guitarist Cam Cunningham, keyboardist Zach Bain-Selbo, bassist Khalyle Hagood, and drummer Zach Upton-Davis. On Specter they’re variously joined by vocalist A.ADISA, Eli Namay on bass, Matt Riggen on trumpet, David Fletcher on trombone, and the Kaia String Quartet. 

We invited the band to break down every song on the album, which follows a quarantine cover Frank Ocean’s “Ivy,” 2018’s Break the Locks Off Everything New, 2017’s Dream • Consume • Break, and 2016’s Rust. Check out their responses and listen to Specter below. 

Cam Cunningham: This is the original Cordoba bop. It’s the only tune that appears on both an old release and Specter. We have been playing this one live for a few years, and it’s really changed bit by bit. At one point we did a rewrite of the harmony in the verse. We tweaked our instrumentation and added a lot of energy to the solo section. As we made these edits, I always felt like we got a good response live. It’s evolved a lot since the original version, and I wanted to make sure that people could hear what feels like the “real” version to us now. I think Brianna’s lyrics on this one also do a great job setting the stage for the rest of the record.

Khalyle Hagood: I have a strong affinity for how this band grows our tunes over time, and this is a track that landed in a much more satisfying place after retooling. It’s another tune where I get to have fun and rip during the solo. The outro is always a huge moment, it lands so well after what came before and is super dreamy.

Brianna Tong: This is a nice example of how sometimes you can make art you like out of a really shitty time you were having. I think I was struggling to write words and a melody to this song, and I found some stuff I’d written previously about anxiety and was like welp. It fits together a couple themes and feelings, but there is a lot about the often inescapable, anxiety-producing feeling that you have to produce something of Value at all times to be Worth anything under capitalism (sometimes it’s just in your mind, and sometimes it’s the unfortunate reality). I love Asha’s part so much and am so glad they were down to write something for this song, I think it’s the perfect ending.

Cam: I had such a fun time writing the instrumental parts for this one. It started with a little guitar idea you can probably hear most prominently towards the end. I kept coming up with more and more variations and the song ballooned. We ended up asking Asha to guest.

“Mutual Aid”
Cam: “Factory” and “Diluvian” are so much—I really like them a lot, but they’re intense. “Mutual Aid” functions as sort of a sonic sorbet in between heavier tracks. I decided to add some horns, so it would feel like an extension of “Factory” in terms of color. I had a great time playing the guitar solo over this. I did so many demos before finally laying this down. The chord changes offer so many possibilities! 

Khalyle: I really enjoy the way the bass part is written. It feels like it just goes up and up and doesn’t stop, and it gets hypnotic to play.

Eric Novak: This was probably the song that gave us the most anxiety to live track at Jamdek. Probably the most technically demanding song on the record for all the members, I know the sax part took a couple months for me to learn. There was just a lot at stake for every take. The vocal melodies were written in my bedroom, Cam and I plinking things out on my Hammond Sounder organ. The lyrics were written all while riding the Pink Line train to and from Cam’s house for Cordoba rehearsals, often while it was raining. It has a lot of images of flooding and overloading of the masses with little concern from the higher ups who claim to run our society. Instead, the ruling class consistently tries to drown us, whether it be with consumerist placations, or tyrannical force and violence. We are constantly trying to keep our heads above the tsunami that is American capitalism.

Zach Bain-Selbo: Yes, this one was terrifying to track and every time we play it live I get sweaty. It’s the main reason I have to have a cup of coffee before we go on. On the flipside, I had the most fun mixing this one and playing with the vocal effects. Cam was very involved with the mixing process and had the idea to dramatically Melodyne (pitch shift) the background vocals in the first verse. 

Zach Upton-Davis: This tune was the hardest for me to get down as well. The high-hat part is played with one hand, and it took all my mental energy to stay relaxed and locked in. Like Eric, it took me months to get it right, and I had to build up a lot of endurance. The upside is I built up a lot of endurance!

“Waters Rise”
Cam: Brianna and I actually wrote an early version of the music to this song back in 2018 as a setting to a beautiful poem called “Nebula” a local high schooler wrote. This great org 826CHI paired local musicians with young authors and hosted a really dope concert where we were all able to perform our works for the young authors and their families. I cannot wait until we get out of the pandemic and can do events like that one again! We eventually wrote our own lyrics for it and updated the music in a way that hopefully makes sense for this record.

Zach B-S: I desperately wanted this tune to fade out but was outvoted. The tribe has spoken.

Zach U-D: When we play this live, the intro is always such a wonderful and calming break for me. It’s such a peaceful space, and the strings on the record really bring it to the next level.

“No Answer”
Eric: The first half of this song is improvised between me and Zach. I was going for a more angry, weary Colin Stetson with the improvised sax part. Cam wrote the tense part that comes after the improv, which Brianna shouts over later with a series of angry quips. Overall the vibe here is anger and tension, but the recording was very fun and low-key since a large chunk of this interlude is improvised. This was one of the tunes where I really got to flex my sax effects board that was recently assembled prior to the live tracking session. Using my newly acquired Rainbow Machine pedal, I was able to create some pretty intense soundscapes live, surrounding Brianna’s frenetic vocals with decaying sax chaos. It was pretty fucking fun.

Brianna: Before I started a punk band, I had to let that energy out somewhere lol. This was fun as fuck. I think Cam and I wrote the non-improvised instrumental parts on New Year’s Eve one year, off of one of my voice notes app snippets. Why IS prison labor still legal, it’s literally slavery? Why DO I think about dying all the time?

“Ghosts I”
Brianna: For some songs, I feel like the lyrics just flow out of me with barely any effort and this was one of them. It’s about one of my early memories of Chicago. I love hearing Eric and Cam’s solos when we play this one live. This isn’t so much about my experiences directly, but it feels very emotional to play most times. People just die, for no reason sometimes. The strings are so unsettling, but then the rest of the song feels very warm to me, even though the feeling is sad.

Zach B-S: The next three songs may have names now, but they will always be New #1, New #2 and New #3 in my heart. Which one is which? No one knows. This naming system caused a couple of fun situations when we played these live.

“Ghosts II”
Brianna: I wanted to vibe on the second verse of this song, and I had a lot of fun doing that. I was inspired by some Migos flows probably, like on “T-Shirt.” The lyrics feel kind of like a continuation of “Ghosts I,” like a zoom-out from that song, in a way, with a villain now too, or a villainous type of power anyway. It fucking sucks how Chicago, and all over the US to be honest, deeply deeply fucks over black people and POC and poor people. This is a song for while we eat the rich…

Cam: I really love playing this tune. This is one of the first one we wrote for the record. It went through a pretty long editing and revision process. It was always an angry piece, but once Brianna wrote her part, I knew that I really had to bring the intensity in arranging it. Eric and I both really push our instruments to match the tone of Brianna’s incredible performance here.

Zach U-D: Cam’s solo on this one is one of my favorite moments on the record both to hear and play. By the end of it, I’ve built up the intensity of the drums to a point where we are basically sharing the solo space. We really worked on making our improvisation more fluid and collaborative, and it paid off.

Eric: I remember this was one of the first songs for the new record that Cam asked me to sing. The music has a bubbling anger, coming out in bursts but then returning to a state of boiling tension. It was pretty indicative of the relationship between Chicago and its police state, even back when it was written (probably a year or so before Covid hit and things got much more dire). I tried to deliver the vocals as if I were spitting on the boys in blue at a protest, trying to draw from our collective anger towards the authoritarian state. This was probably the angriest song on the album apart from the improv interlude.

Cam: This is one of the most collaborative tunes on the record. I remember sitting in Eric’s room at his old place in Logan and just pounding out the lyrics and vocal melody to this one real fast. I feel like even though I wrote most of the instrumental parts, Eric knew what I was trying to say before I did. We are pissed at the Chicago Police Department and the role they play in terrorizing people (particularly POC) in our city, and we are not just going to accept it. It’s energizing and empowering being in a city like Chicago where people truly fought back and stood up for themselves this summer.

No Horizon”
Cam: The minimalist sounding bits of this piece evoke trains, skyscrapers, and modern cities in general. I think musically “No Horizon” provides a nice contrast with some of the darker and heavier tunes on Specter. This is the only tune I wrote lyrics for. This one was inspired by thinking of Chicago as both an emotional and an urban landscape. Chicago is extreme even for an American city in how centralized it is—all of the trains go to the Loop, tourists tend to stay basically downtown, thousands and thousands of people work in offices, restaurants, and retail down there, and so much of the city budget is spent beautifying, policing, and building downtown. I think this is at the expensive of the neighborhoods where the vast majority of Chicagoans actually live. The pristine streets of the Loop, the towering buildings, the perfectly manicured gardens of Grant Park remind me that the desires of the wealthy and powerful are always prioritized over the basic needs of housing, education, and health of most Chicagoans. 

Khalyle: This is one of the earliest tracks we played/learned from the album, and it’s evolved into this absolute beast to play live. The minimalist section feels new and exciting every time, and the guitar solo lets me have fun underneath with Zach U-D. I get really into the chorus, trying to play it as mean as possible.

“Out of the Loop”
Cam: This piece is really similar in function to “Mutual Aid.” It’s a sort of release after “No Horizon.” I wanted to end the record on a relatively lighter note. So much of the record is intense, filled with contrast and conflict. “Out of the Loop” is a short and placid coda for a record that speaks to the crises of our times. Cordoba doesn’t believe that our city, country, or world are headed in the right direction, but we don’t believe that complete doom is inevitable either. This piece doesn’t take a side. It merely exists and hopefully allows the listener to float out of Specter.

Specter is out now via Amalgam. You can order it here.

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