Exploding Star Orchestra
We Are All from Somewhere Else
ornetist Rob Mazurek assembled the Exploding Star Orchestra in 2005 to represent the avant-garde side of Chicago’s rich musical tapestry at a concert held in that city’s Millennium Park. The Orchestra ended up sticking together (at least as a vehicle for Mazurek’s compositions, as the line-up changed a bit from point A to B to C) and developed over around 30 performances before the set heard on We Are All from Somewhere Else was recorded by John McEntire at his Soma Studio. Mazurek is without a doubt the leader of the Orchestra—his credit reads “Composer, Director, Cornet, Computer”—but with what amounts to a post-rock all-star team at his disposal, surely some of the credit for the band’s sound should go to the players, and especially so given the improv nature of some of the results. Mazurek may have mapped out the ideas, but it’s the stellar cast that carries them out that makes for all the thrills here.
That cast reads like a who’s who of the Chicago post-rock scene: Mazurek, McEntire, Nicole Mitchell, Jeff Parker, John Herndon, Matthew Lux, Corey Wilkes, and Jim Baker, among others, and during the Millennium Park gig, Ken Vandermark and David Boykin. With so many talented and individualistic musicians involved, the Exploding Star Orchestra had just as great a chance at success as it did at failure, really.
And so, Mazurek surely must also reap his fair share of credit in keeping things together. Sure, it can be a bit much at times, and more than a bit pretentious at others (check the story/poem/concept ramblings in the CD booklet and insert), but if large-scale avant-jazz and improv doesn’t scare off listeners, they’ll find much to love about this album.
The three pieces here tell a story (according to Mazurek, anyway) of an exploding star, a stingray, electric eels, ghosts, and lots of other cosmic gobbledygook, but given that this is a largely instrumental affair, if you aren’t impressed by the back story, it can easily be ignored. Chances are great that you’ll be more impressed by the dynamic, propulsive rhythms (led by a couple of drum kits and McEntire’s marimba), dense instrumentation playing rollicking themes, and well-executed and tastefully restrained solos than by the long poem/story found in the booklet anyway.
Opener “Sting Ray and the Beginning of Time” sounds a bit like some of Mingus’ larger ensemble works with an electric rock flair to them, far more trad than, say, early ‘70s Miles. The first part of “Sting Ray” is the longest and most satisfying thing here, working over 11-plus minutes and several jumps of mood, tempo, and movement. The general vibe is carried over into the similar but far shorter part two, which in turn dissolves into part three, subtitled “Psycho-Tropic Electric Eel Dream.” This is an improv centered around Mazurek’s recordings of electric eels (they sound a bit like treated strings), before part four returns to the big, busy ensemble once more. All four parts work on their own well enough, some better than others, but as to what the totally dissimilar third part is doing in there, someone involved with the recording (probably Mazurek) would be far better suited to answer. Part three would likely have sounded far better on its own, leaving the jazzier work in its own self-contained sphere. As it is, it totally breaks momentum and loses itself in self-serving sonic scree.
The middle piece, the brief, singular “Black Sun” is a much better palate cleanser, a three-minute solo piano interlude that phases via a backwards tape of an Amazon rain storm into the final, five-part piece, “Cosmic Tomes for Sleep Walking Lovers,” which owes a fair bit to Sun Ra and his Arkestra, opening with a shuddering din of tubular bells, and phasing, rollicking drum rolls, punctuated by free-flowing horn riffs and fanfares. Far less structured sounding at first than either of the previous pieces (save the “Eel Dream”), “Cosmic Tomes” is actually an ambitious large-scale construction, as the middle parts break the group down into smaller parts for shorter movements before bringing it all down in a mellow tone at the end. Part two recalls the repetitive compositions of Philip Glass or Steve Reich, while part three is a different sort of repetitive theme, far more jazzy and swinging. Part four is an 11-second quickie that basically serves as a build-up to the finale, a surprisingly mellow affair, down tempo and spacious, with fluttering flute, vibes, and thick bottom end led by a bass clarinet.
It’s here that the whole “exploding star/cosmic rebirth” theme finally starts to make some most sense musically, and I can’t help but think that the whole album would have been far better served without it all. Taken on their own, the songs are adventurous and intriguing; forced into a theme or three and they just sound forced. It’s all in the ear of the beholder, I suppose, and you can certainly choose to ignore the texts and just enjoy the music, as I have a feeling I will in any and all subsequent listens. Still, Mazurek & Co. succeed far more often than they fail here, and one would hope that with even more experience playing together and a bit less worry about “what it all means,” the Exploding Star Orchestra could be a most impressive vehicle in the future.