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ÉSSO’s Expansive Sound Reflects Textured Experiences

Written by on July 22, 2021

Years of collaboration and experimentation have culminated in ÉSSO’s determined synthesis of Latin jazz, funk, psychedelia, Afrobeat and R&B.

Image credit: Carolina Sanchez

ÉSSO’s unique combination of sounds came to guitarist Armando Pérez through a childhood spent in thrall to Chicago punk bands, like Screeching Weasel and the The Bollweevils, and later his adoration of conscious hip-hop troupes, like Black Star. Each band offered up a sort of protest music for the young performer to parse, while attempting to get liberated from the strictures of expectation. Add to that mix Pérez’s summertime excursions with family in Mexico, where he’d take in the sounds of cumbia and regional folk music while riding around in his uncle’s pickup truck.

It’s those sort of textured experiences that have resulted in ÉSSO’s latest release, XICAGO, where a spate of new tracks by the ensemble are combined with recordings Pérez prepared on his own, drawn from a release called RAZA (Cumbia EP).

“There has to be pop sensibility in every song,” the bandleader said recently over Zoom while chatting about his work’s array of influences. “I’ve always thought that music will find its audience. I remember [rapper] Immortal Technique said something on a mixtape that really hit me as a songwriter and producer. He said, ‘You know, there’s a market for everything, you just have to be able to find it.’”

“I was prouder of those who put love first. I was prouder of the culture that put expression and humanity into me, as opposed to the culture that I felt took over and was cold.”

Armando Pérez

Amid the search Pérez has undertaken, the bandleader’s trekked across the country and visited Spain, an experience that changed his perception of self, as well as the art he makes.

“There was this extreme duality, and it was just eye-opening to me,” Pérez said, contrasting his experiences in Mexico with the European country’s history of colonization. “I was prouder of those who put love first. I was prouder of the culture that put expression and humanity into me, as opposed to the culture that I felt took over and was cold.”

Pérez and ÉSSO seek to process cultural ideals drawn from members’ variegated backgrounds and experiences, like those the bandleader’s had during his travels. But even with its lofty goals, the ensemble’s still dedicated to the joys of dance music: “Cariño,” a breezy tune off the new album permeated by a salsa vibe, and “Izquierda” — a July 2020 Vocalo In Rotation pick — where vaguely political vocalizing is spliced into the acid-jazz groove, are ample proof of the tact.

“I’ve produced a lot of music, and to me this is like the realest thing that I’ve been able to put together,” Pérez said about his band’s latest release.

But the multi-instrumentalist pointed to “Mueve La Cadera,” the first track off XICAGO, as a song that typifies the ensemble’s work. It’s a dense combination of Highlife guitar and the burly horns of a jazz troupe, and showcases both R&B and dancehall vocals.

“I think that one represents the band best because of the fact that it has all those elements,” Pérez said. “We’re really proud of the way that it came out, because it’s so much fun to play live.”

In 2013, the band was founded to work live stages, securing a residency at a now-shuttered venue in the Loop. But what enables the troupe to claim as many bar and festival spots as it does around Chicago is its malleable lineup, swelling from a handful of performers to more than a dozen players, depending on the setting.

While ÉSSO hasn’t played much since the pandemic hit, the band is set to perform 6 p.m. July 25 at Wicker Park Fest — situated along North Milwaukee Avenue, between West North and North Walcott Avenues. The ensemble’s slotted to play just before Smoking Popes, one of those local bands that enamored a young Pérez and in a roundabout way prodded him to pursue music in the first place.

Written By Dave Cantor

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