Since Rob Mazurek had jumped headlong into electro-acoustic jazz and generally positioning himself on the fringes of both jazz and rock, he’s rarely looked back at the straight post-bop of his early career, at least not so with the same approach. Instead, this Chicago-based cornet player opens up a new project or ensemble that represents a new nuance in his forward-thinking concept. The Chicago Underground, Tigersmilk, Sound Is, Starlicker, and the Exploding Star Orchestra are just a partial list of some acclaimed ensembles he’s started. The latest nuance is his Pulsar Quartet, and joining Mazurek are ellow jazz frontiers(wo)men pianist Angelica Sanchez (Wadada Leo Smith), bass guitarist Matthew Lux (Iron & Wine) and drummer John Herndon (Tortoise). Stellar Pulsations is their maiden release.
Save for Lux’s bass, this is all acoustic and it’s less abstract as Starlicker, but don’t think for a moment that Mazurek is retreating back into strict tradition, because that isn’t in his nature to do so. Even throughout his most avantist projects, he’s maintained — even further developed — a keen ear for melody, playing in a direct, sensitive and minimal way that when you strip out all the electronics, abstractions and layers of sonic textures, are found at the core of all his music. Those are the qualities laid to bare on Stellar Pulsations.
The Lux/Herndon rhythm section is a powerful one, as Herndon is churning relentlessly on most songs and Lux exploits the harmonic range of an electric bass. But more often than not, it’s hard not to notice first the interaction between Mazurek and Sanchez. They’re trading off playing the thematic lines on tracks like “Magic Saturn” and “Primitive Jupiter,” and even where Sanchez is locked tightly into a rhythmic pattern with Herndon on “Spiral Mercury,” she’s simultaneously negotiating with Mazurek.
Mazurek inserts his first-hand understanding of Brazilian rhythms and patterns on a couple of tunes: “Primitive Jupiter” is underpinned by a propulsive samba, and “Spanish Venus” makes use of a soft bossa nova that’s mated to Lux’s circular bass line, as the “Spanish” part of the song is presumed to be borne out on Mazurek’s fragile expressions from his muted horn that evoke Miles’ own on Sketches of Spain.
“Spiritual Mars” is the bombastic cut of the album, beginning with an exploding chord from Sanchez and remaining unsettled with its free-jazz leanings on through the end. It’s never atonal or aimless, though. The last two tracks employ chord patterns that are open-ended, exploratory, but still within the post-bop realm “Twister Uranus,” is driven by Herndon’s boiling rhythms and Sanchez briefly crossing over into Cecil Taylor territory a few times. “Folk Song Neptune” ends the album as a soft, modal ballad given acute impressions by Mazurek’s muted cornet.
Rob Mazurek’s new Pulsar Quartet leaves little doubt that Mazurek continues to restlessly search for and venture into interesting underexplored patches of jazz, no matter how precise that patch might be. Stellar Pulsations is a promising start for his latest new pursuit.
Stellar Pulsations was released August 28 by Delmark Records.
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