March 2007

Exploding Star Orchestra: Blinded by the Light

Jazz soloists are always encouraged to tell a story with their playing, but it’s rare to hear an ensemble tell one. The Rob Mazurek-led Exploding Star Orchestra relayed an epic.

We Are All From Somewhere Else, the ensemble’s debut on edgy Chicago indie Thrill Jockey, is the cornetist-composer’s “…little take on how things were created. But also the metaphor for how sound is created and how vision is created.

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Thrill Jockey

Exploding Star Orchestra

“I thought of the concept of evolution and the fact that nobody knows where we’re from basically. [The album narrative] came out of a quick sketch of how I imagined evolution took place based on an exploding star,” says Mazurek, who spearheaded the influential Chicago Underground groups.

In three connecting movements—“Sting Ray and the Beginning of Time,” “Black Sun” and “Cosmic Tomes for Sleep Walking Lovers”—the album puts forth a big-bang theory that resembles some esoteric pastiche of Stephen Hawking, L. Ron Hubbard and a mid-set Sun Ra address. As relayed in the elegiac liner poem, a “burst of light” hurdles toward earth, crashes into the ocean and transforms into a Sting Ray. It’s an extramusical concept that Mazurek was inspired to create through visual and literary sources. Before and during the composition process, Mazurek, who splits his time between Brazil and Chicago, dug books like Jana Levin’s How the Universe Got Its Spots and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, music by French avant-garde composer Erik Satie and free-jazz superfreak Ra, and films from revered experimentalist Stan Brakhage. Film figured heavily into the composition.

“The concept of the piece, as I got further and further into writing it, was extremely visual to me. I envisioned it as some kind of animated video thing,” says Mazurek. “I also envisioned it being some kind of a children’s book.”

If all of this sounds relentlessly odd, the music is surprisingly accessible. With a large go-to cast of Chicago players including Tortoise’s John McEntire (marimba) and Jeff Parker (guitar), flugelhornist Corey Wilkes, Frequency flutist Nicole Mitchell, and even saxophonist Ken Vandermark, who’s performed with the group but doesn’t appear on the album, the Orchestra creates a rollicking yet airtight ensemble sound that, in parts, wouldn’t sound out of place scoring a classic Hollywood adventure film. Shades of fusion, prog, Middle Eastern melodies, Bollywood and ’60s film soundtracks, Chi-Town cool and free jazz, Arkestra-style controlled chaos, and more traditional big-band arranging all emerge as parts of one dynamic whole. It’s the product of a leader who demands a cohesive unit but still nurtures individual expression. Guitarist Parker raved about Mazurek’s conducting and called his leadership style “stern but loose.” While Parker admits the composer’s charts were “well conceived” but “difficult,” he also reveals he pretty much had free rein over his solos, all of which were improvised. The album’s second movement, “Black Sun,” is a meditative solo-piano piece performed by Jim Baker, meant to signify the Sting Ray’s death and rebirth as a spirit that becomes a star.

Strangely enough, the leader, who is already developing a follow-up work to be recorded, didn’t educate his band on the star and the Sting Ray. Says Parker: “I was not aware of that, but I know Rob, [and] he’s really concerned with the intersections between music and art, so it doesn’t surprise me.”

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