Exploding Star Orchestra – Stars Have Shapes (2010)

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by S. Victor Aaron

Cornet player Rob Mazurek has got to be one of the busiest guys on the robust Chicago fringe jazz scene. We loved Sound Is when it came out last year, which introduced his new quintet, but Mazurek has by then helmed or co-helmed so many other projects that starts with jazz and ends up who knows where: Isotope 217, Tigersmilk, Exploding Star Orchestra, and the Chicago Underground Orchestra, with its splinter groups Chicago Underground Duo, Chicago Underground Trio and Chicago Underground Quartet.

No matter which vehicle he uses, provocative atmospherics combined with imaginative, stirring improvisation and unpredictably arranged compositions is usually the order of the day for Mazurek. Next week comes the release of a new Exploding Star Orchestra issue, providing another excuse to check into what Mazurek’s been up to lately.

Formed around 2005 when the Chicago Cultural Center and the Jazz Institute asked Mazurek to assemble an orchestra for a concert, the Exploding Star Orchestra project culminated in a 2007 CD, We Are All from Somewhere Else. This ensemble was an impressive collection of who’s who of the Chicago scene, including illustrious members of AACM and the post-rock giants Tortoise. With the Stars Have Shapes, Exploding Star Orchestra becomes more than a one-shot deal.

The sophomore album returns many of the same members of the first one, but tweaks the lineup somewhat. Nicole Mitchell (flute, voice), Matt Bauder (clarinet, tenor sax), Jeb Bishop (trombone), Jason Adasiewicz (vibes), Josh Abrams (bass), John Herndon (drums), Mike Reed (drums) and Matthew Lux (bass guitar) are carried over. Greg Ward, whose debut album is also due out September 28 (look for a review of it on this space), joins in on alto sax.

Mazurek, once again, serves as the ring leader—or more formally—the director and composer, who also plays his cornet and creates “electro-acoustic constructions.” In fulfilling that last role, Mazurek pulled in sounds from, according to the CD sleeve, “rain from the Brazilian Amazon, insects at the turn of an eclipse, the hammering overdrive of bicycles in Copenhagen, stacked muted cornets run through various filters, drones built from electric eels and piano feedback, hi-frequency sinuous lines from tone generators, pitched bass guitars, and other prepared instruments.” You can never be sure when each of these altered sounds are being played, because Mazurek blends them thoroughly into an ever-shifting environment.

Consisting of only four pieces, two of them twenty minutes long and the other two much shorter, Stars Have Shapes retains the celestial-natural earth dynamic of the first album, like Sun Ra, Chicago style. The longer pieces purposely lack tight song construction, because textures and free form improvisation form the basic building blocks for these compositions.

A person whistling no melody in particular kicks off “Ascension Ghost Impression #2” but the piece soon plunges into a swirling mass coexisting amongst a mostly relaxed, unhurried horn arrangement. The tornado of noise eventually overtakes the horns and recedes, leaving behind Mitchell’s prancing flute. Unexpectedly, the horns return with a genteel, Glenn Miller-like chart before the retro section is swept away by the returning turbulence. What follows is a procession of exotic sounds both organic and processed coexisting in a natural state only Manzurek can conceive.

“Three Blocks Of Light” delves even further into electronically-altered sounds, beginning with a backdrop of chirps (perhaps it’s those “insects at the turn of an eclipse”) segueing into pure ambiance. The orchestra itself seems entirely absent for large stretches of these sections, until Mitchell, Adasiewicz and Manzurek emit just enough sparse notes to break the predominance of that smooth drone. Other band members contribute very discreetly so as not to disturb the motionless mood.

The two shorter cuts sport sharper-defined characteristics, but the manner in which they are performed aren’t entirely conventional. “ChromoRocker” has a churning jungle rhythm, a bass-centered melody and various counter melodies. “Impression #1” is built around a repeating bass figure and a straightforward chart that nonetheless swims in a sea of hazy sonic palette. Soloists emerge and fade away with equal nonchalance, but Mazurek’s cornet remains a constant on top of that ostinato.

Of all of Rob Mazurek’s projects, the Exploding Star Orchestra may be the fullest manifestation of his incisive musical vision. Stars Have Shapes stays on the original mission and continues the Exploding Star Orchestra’s distinction as one of the most compelling and forward-thinking avant garde large ensembles in existence today.

Stars Have Shapes is a Delmark Records release. Visit Rob Mazurek’s site here.

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S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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