Rob Mazurek: Sound Affects

Sonics, a matter of the heart

Rob Mazurek
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Bill Dixon and Rob Mazurek, 2007
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Rob Mazurek (r.) with drummer Chad Taylor in the Chicago Underground Duo, c. 2000
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Sao Paulo Underground: Guilherme Granado, Rob Mazurek, Mauricio Takara
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“I haven’t really talked about trumpet. You want me to talk about Kenny Dorham or something? I’m just so much more interested in the idea of projecting a sound where you can’t even say what the instrument is.”

The question and mission statement come from Rob Mazurek toward the end of an hour-long conversation. The cornetist has spent the time discussing the various elements that have driven his many different musical projects. To name a few: his longstanding Chicago Underground Duo (formerly Orchestra and, at various times, Trio), wherein he and percussionist Chad Taylor create outsized ambience using a Spartan format; Exploding Star Orchestra, which serves as something of a who’s who of Chicago-based improvisers; and São Paulo Underground, which combines experimental jazz with dub grooves and Brazilian melodies. There was also the post-rock/jazz group Isotope 217, and Mazurek has given solo performances on cornet filtered through an array of electronics to create a sea of sounds (“tsunami” might be the more accurate metaphor). On top of that, personnel in some of his bands has been mixed and matched to form hybrid groups, and heavyweights such as saxophonists Pharoah Sanders and Roscoe Mitchell and the late trumpeter Bill Dixon have guested with Mazurek’s units.

Mazurek’s mention of trumpeter Dorham sounds like a wisecrack meant to mockingly connect his instrument to a tradition. But it’s easy to believe that he can bring the same level of conviction to a discussion of Dorham’s Una Mas that he brings to his original concepts. It wasn’t long ago that Mazurek was devoted to the canon of bop. While the concepts and aesthetics have evolved over the years, one thing hasn’t changed: his warm yet delicate tone.

For most of the summer of 2015, Mazurek lived in Marfa, Texas, the contemporary-art oasis with a population of less than 2,000. From 2000 to 2005 he called Brazil home, and he’s lived abroad in other countries too-a nomadic habit he sees as a way to keep his creative juices flowing. “I think people can get so wound up in their immediate environment and their immediate mind that you have to have different ways to open that up,” he says. “Some people do it with drugs and alcohol. My drug is going to some strange destination and pulling things from the environment, the spirituality of a place.”

Today, Mazurek, 50, is primarily based in Chicago. He was born in New Jersey but grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, frequently making his way into the city. Wayne Segal of the Jazz Showcase took notice of the teenaged brass player and frequently let him into the club to experience weeklong engagements by Wayne Shorter, Art Farmer and Pharoah Sanders. In the early ’80s, he approached the up-and-coming Wynton Marsalis and asked him for lessons. “Wynton’s group at that time-Jeff Watts, Kenny Kirkland, Branford, Robert Hurst-was playing all of Ornette Coleman’s music from The Shape of Jazz to Come,” he recalls. “Wynton told me to buy that record, which I did the next day. Wynton was kind and generous and treated me like an equal, although I was so young and green. He gave me lessons every day for a week.”

Upon graduating from high school, Mazurek moved on to Chicago’s Bloom School of Jazz, where he learned to shape a solo while transcribing and listening intensely to Miles, Coltrane and Mingus. He also spent time at the New Apartment Lounge, sitting in on jam sessions hosted by saxophonist Von Freeman. For a year he lived with saxophonist Lin Halliday, soaking up his musical knowledge.

Drummer Chad Taylor was only 15, eight years younger than Mazurek, when he got a call for a gig with the cornetist in 1989. Of the years leading up to the Chicago Underground projects, Taylor remembers power suits and straight-ahead playing. “It was the whole Wynton thing. He was playing bebop,” Taylor says. “I always thought he sounded good, not great. It just wasn’t his thing, but he was definitely convincing.”

Guitarist Jeff Parker, who would also become a part of the original Chicago Underground group, met Mazurek a few years later. The music sounded pretty reverent, but he could see a personality emerging as well. “It was a very particular Blue Note bag: a lot of boogaloos, a lot of blues,” he says. “He was really into lyrical, swinging trumpet players. It’s Rob, so it was very conceptual, much more than ‘I’m going to play jazz.’ He was very specific in the stuff that he was referencing-much more specific than what anyone was doing at the time.”

Mazurek landed a contract with the Hep label, based in Scotland, and released three conventional albums between 1994 and ’97, with small groups including saxophonist Eric Alexander, pianist Randolph Tressler, bassist John Webber and drummer George Fludas. He also took lessons from one of his straight-ahead heroes, Art Farmer, and the experience gave Mazurek a new sense of purpose. “He said I played jazz just fine, but it wasn’t good enough to just imitate the masters,” Mazurek recalls. “He really scolded me about this, and encouraged me to dig deeper and find my own way of projecting sound.”

While in high school, Mazurek had listened to the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Sun Ra and electric Miles, and Farmer’s directive inspired him to reexamine this music. He soon landed a Sunday afternoon engagement at Chicago’s Green Mill, which became something of a workshop for composers. Knowing guitarist Parker had connections with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), the cornetist got back in touch with him, as well as with Taylor. “The original intention, the way I remember it, wasn’t ‘Let’s do avant-garde music or free jazz’; it was ‘Let’s play some tunes,'” Taylor says. “But it just happened that the tunes Jeff was bringing in were more on the experimental side. And that started influencing Rob a lot, and he started bringing in some different-sounding stuff. Then I would bring in some stuff. It evolved into what eventually came to be Chicago Underground.”

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As Mazurek moved away from music built on conventional chord changes during the late ’90s, his focus leaned more toward sound itself. (In 2009, he even titled a quintet album Sound Is.) He once described it using the phrase “psychedelic illumination drones,” a term he still approves of, though he admits “drones” implies specific and predictable consequences.

To hear Mazurek explain it, it sounds less like a throwback to the Summer of Love and more like his own expression of Sun Ra-ian philosophy. “It’s all [based on] that projection of trying to find the frequency that best corresponds to this positive energy flow,” he says. “And by positive energy flow, I don’t just mean playing something happy; I mean waking people up to the idea of a higher understanding. I know it sounds very-whatever, I don’t know what the word is, even. But I mean it sincerely.”

However it reads, a substantial example of the concept can be heard on last year’s Return the Tides: Ascension Suite and Holy Ghost (Cuneiform), credited to Mazurek and Black Cube SP. The hour-long suite was recorded shortly after the death of the cornetist’s mother, Kathleen, which influenced the music as well as the cover art, a collage designed by Mazurek. Rather than mourn the loss of a loved one, he says the music acts as transference of “Mother energy. For me, it was kind of an immediate realization of her being physically gone. But I also felt an absolute physicality coming back at me, this kind of feeling that she was rising. She was sending this energy back to me in order to do that work. And to continue to do what I’m doing,” he says. “I would imagine that would be one of the best feelings to have from someone that you love passing.”

In a concert in April at Pittsburgh’s Andy Warhol Museum, the energy was visceral, as Mazurek-along with Thomas Rohrer (on the rabeca, a Brazilian fiddle; and soprano saxophone) and São Paulo Underground bandmates Guilherme Granado (keyboards) and Mauricio Takara (drums)-unleashed a loud, swirling sound that combined electric Miles, free improvisation and textures that recalled prog and krautrock bands like Can. Mazurek emitted intense blasts from his cornet, in addition to playing wood flute and manipulating electronics, with occasional vocalizing. The energy never relented.

On the same tour, the group played at Loyola University in New Orleans, in a performance that also included video projections. Mazurek remembers how one audience member claimed to have something of an out-of-body experience. “Afterwards, this student, a freshman, came backstage and he looked stunned,” Mazurek says. “He was just standing there, staring wide-eyed, and I said, ‘Dude, are you OK?’ He said, ‘I’ve never heard anything or seen anything like that before.’ He was trying to put it in words and he started stuttering. I thought, ‘Just take it easy, man. Enjoy what just happened because we shared that together.’

“He was just so grateful. And it’s very touching to know that you’ve done something important for someone, and that it’s not just some dumb, trivial concert.”

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In Mazurek’s work, even the smallest sound can have a ripple effect on what follows. In addition to his jazz influences, he cites equally weighted inspiration from sources as far-ranging as composer Morton Feldman and experimental noise musician Merzbow. “I use a lot of 12-tone technique and different synthetic chord structures in a lot of my music,” Mazurek says. “The reason for me doing that isn’t to be clever. [I’m] trying to find the right frequencies to give the instruments personalities to really make the thing blow. That’s the music I want to hear.

“So if you hear the most amazing chord that Feldman just made, next to the most amazing noise, like the skull-splitting sound of Merzbow, that’s the sound and the type of thing that

I’m interested in: the spaces between that.”

All six of the albums released under the Exploding Star billing have sought to connect interplanetary transmissions with a free-flowing orchestral sound. With the recent Galactic Parables: Volume 1, Mazurek gets closer to his ideal than ever before. The double-disc set features two complete live performances of the titular piece, with slight variations in instrumentation and order of the piece’s movements. Damon Locks’ spoken-word passages have become a staple on Orchestra discs, and his orations frame music that blends Sun Ra (who appears via a phantom voice sample), AACM eclecticism and the thoughtful post-rock that guitarist Parker performs in the band Tortoise.

The Orchestra sounds loose, but it sounds that way by design. “The only real direction [from Mazurek] is that he wants the energy level to be really high. He wants it to be explosive,” says Parker. “You have a lot of freedom within what he’s asking you to do. You really put yourself into it.”

Considering the challenge of corralling Orchestra members (some of them live outside of Chicago; all are busy working musicians), Mazurek uses Duke Ellington’s approach of writing for specific musicians, and takes it to a logical extreme. “It’s not like he says, ‘Oh, I need a third trumpet,'” Parker says. “If I can’t make it, he might get somebody who plays trombone to replace me. If the trombone player can’t make it, he might get somebody to play vibraphone to replace him. It’s always geared toward specific musical personalities.”

While Mazurek’s skills as a leader and conceptualist are fairly well recognized, Parker laments the lack of attention directed toward his chops and tone on cornet. “I can’t think of any trumpet player now who has a more beautiful sound than Rob. He has a great sound that’s always kind of reminded me of all the cats he checked out: Miles, Lee Morgan, Kenny Dorham, Art Farmer … a list of fat, beautiful trumpet sounds,” he says, adding, “He knows how to play inside. He doesn’t just play on top. He can play underneath or within the music.”

Drummer Taylor marvels at his partner’s consistency throughout his voluminous discography. “I’m only on a handful of stuff that he’s done,” he says. “But I keep on waiting for him to mess up, to make a record that’s not happening. And it’s never happened. Every record I hear is very original. It’s difficult to do as many records as he does and not mess up once in a while. Not Rob. Every one is a gem.” That includes Pharoah & the Underground’s Spiral Mercury, a 2014 summit that brought together the Chicago and São Paulo Underground bands with tenor giant Pharoah Sanders wailing over their groovy backgrounds. Taylor wasn’t happy with the performance and didn’t want it to be released; Mazurek insisted and Taylor became upset-but only until he actually heard the album. “It just shows you that he’s always hearing something that you might not be necessarily picking up on,” Taylor says.

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Before 2015 is over, Mazurek will again have released documents of an array of different projects. This fall brings Some Jellyfish Live Forever, a set of duets with Parker on the RogueArt label. There’s also Vortice of the Faun (Astral Spirits), a solo cassette of intense electro-acoustic sound experiments that reveal compositional structures as the sounds bounce from channel to channel.

Whether the subject is his early neo-bop days, the current era of Exploding Star Orchestra or a work-in-progress called “Marfa Loops, Shouts and Hollers”-which will involve country singer Ross Cashiola-it’s clear Mazurek has never been a dabbler. “I think it’s a continuum. The first record is as important as the last record I put out, as far as what I’m trying to project as a human,” he says. “I’m a big fan of continuity and using past materials to understand something new as well.

“I want to try to do something unique and interesting that’s based on a vocabulary I’ve built up over years, making these records and doing these concerts. To get that one kid who comes backstage and has his mind blown-then I’m happy.”

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