Album of the Week // 4–8 January
Rob Mazurek is a multidisciplinary abstractivist with a focus on electro-acoustic composition, improvisation, performance, painting, sculpture, video, and installation. He spent much of his creative life in Chicago, and some years in Brazil. Currently he lives and works in Marfa, Texas.
Emerging from the musical nexus of 1990’s Chicago, the Jersey City, New Jersey native has made an indelible impact on creative music over the past 30 years. He has written over 400 compositions and is featured on 70+ recordings from various labels including Thrill Jockey, Astral Spirits, Corbett vs Dempsey, Cuneiform, CleanFeed, Delmark, Rogue Art, El Paraiso, Harmonipan, Mego, Northern Spy, Submarine, and International Anthem.
He’s led or co-led many ensembles of various sizes and shapes including Exploding Star Orchestra (his flagship large ensemble), Chicago Underground (duo, trio, quartet and orchestra), Isotope 217 (alongside several members of Tortoise), São Paulo Underground (his primary working group across his time in Brazil), Pharoah and the Underground (featuring Pharoah Sanders), Alternate Moon Cycles (with Matt Lux and Mikel Patrick Avery), Alien Flower Sutra (with Emmett Kelly) and a duo with Jeff Parker — each of which possesses its own distinct musical personality. In addition to those listed above, he has collaborated with Bill Dixon, Roscoe Mitchell, Hamid Drake, Yusef Lateef, Sam Prekop, David Grubbs, Jim O’Rourke, Naná Vasconcelos, and many more venerable artists.
Mazurek’s visual work has garnered much attention as well. In addition to creating original artwork for almost all of the albums he has released in the last two decades, he has shown his paintings, prints, sculptures, video and installation work at galleries throughout Europe, South America, and the United States. On the continuity of Mazurek’s sonic and visual artistic expressions, Experimental Sound Studio founder Lou Mallozzi has said:
“For those familiar with his music, the attitude, sensibility and craft in his visual work will come as no surprise, exuding the same combination of neo-expressive clarity and dense materiality, sometimes in corrosive collision, at other times in stark harmony. Gesture is paramount: Mazurek’s hand is always apparent, always engaged — like his cornet sound, in which one feels the body intimately shaping the melody, his visual works embody breath and hand shaping light, surface, colour and line.”
While Mazurek’s solo work as a musician expands from cornet, piano, and piccolo trumpet studies to embody musique concrete and electronic experimentation, his composition for large ensemble reveals an intuitive sense of scale. Commissioned by the Chicago Cultural Center and the Jazz Institute of Chicago in 2005 to assemble a group representing the diversity of the city’s contemporary avant-garde, Mazurek amassed a 14-piece ensemble and began composing music for what became his Exploding Star Orchestra. Including musicians from the often-segregated communities of Chicago’s North, South, and West sides — from his long-time collaborators in Tortoise’s expansive orbit, to great black music luminaries from the hallowed AACM, to free jazz revivalists from the Umbrella Music group — Exploding Star Orchestra debuted in the urban epicentre of Chicago’s Millennium Park and, shortly after, went into John McEntire’s Soma Studios to record We Are All From Somewhere Else (Thrill Jockey, 2007). By the time of Galactic Parables Vol. 1, ESO’s 2015 triple LP release, Mazurek reflected to Pop Matters that Exploding Star Orchestra is “the conceptual, compositional and philosophical centre of all my work… a life star of musical, visual and conceptual ideas.”
In 2018, JazzFest Berlin curator Nadin Deventer invited Mazurek to present a new iteration of Exploding Star Orchestra with musicians based in Berlin as well as Chicago. Meeting the commission with the boundless ambition characteristic of his artistic approach, he imagined a jubilee of fifteen musicians and improvisers, true to ESO’s ethos in their widely diverse backgrounds and voices, but more tightly arranged around his intricate compositions than ever before. Summoning an array of symphonic studies — from Béla Bartók to Morton Feldman, Gil Evans to Sun Ra, Pedro Santos to Bill Dixon right through to The Art Ensemble of Chicago — in an ecstatic and wholly original program, Mazurek’s November 2018 debut at Berliner Festspiele marked a new pinnacle in his distinction as a composer and conductor of Contemporary Music. “Mazurek’s arrangements burst in colours, making syntesthetes of us all,” wrote Paul Acquaro in a review of the concert for Free Jazz Collective.
When Mazurek returned to Chicago in Summer 2019, International Anthem took the opportunity to capture his new ESO compositions with a cast of collaborators from their collective constellation of artists. Over a handful studio dates between August 2019 and March 2020, Mazurek channeled his arrangements through 11 musicians — Nicole Mitchell, Jeff Parker, Jaimie Branch, Joel Ross, Mikel Patrick Avery, Tomeka Reid, Chad Taylor, Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, Macie Stewart, Angelica Sanchez, and John Herndon — and commissioned his long-time lyrical collaborator Damon Locks to draft original texts for each of the titles and record vocal tracks.
After three months of rigorous post-production, editing and assembly work, in June 2020 Mazurek completed his culminating new collection of Exploding Star Orchestra recordings. The album — Dimensional Stardust — features an original painting by Mazurek on the cover and is released by the partnership of International Anthem and Nonesuch Records in November 2020.
Dimensional Stardust showcases the intricacy and complexity of Mazurek’s compositions but in their most potent, most compacted forms. Opting to focus on tight ensemble orchestration over passages of open improvisation, Mazurek distills a maximal orchestra of explosive improvisers into a beautifully restrained, graceful group exercise in melodic minimalism. The album features almost no “soloist” moments, excepting Jeff Parker’s other-worldy guitar meltdown on ‘The Careening Prism Within’, and when Nicole Mitchell’s flute floats to the front of the barrage on ‘Sun Core Tet’. Mazurek himself is sparsely present as instrumentalist, only occasionally joining the ensemble with his piccolo trumpet (notably on ‘Parable 3000’, where he shares leads with Mitchell’s flute and Joel Ross’s vibraphone, and his trills and textures haunt ghostly around Jaimie Branch’s trumpet counterpoint). Even Damon Locks’s voice is employed more like an ensemble instrument than a lead vocalist. Locks’ distinctively dry, abstract narrative flow beams in intermittently — sounding almost like fragments of Deltron 3030 through an Orson Welles-style radio transmission — climaxing in the album-closing poetry of ‘Autumn Pleiades’. And all the way through, the electro-acoustic poly-rhythmic percussion section (Chad Taylor, Mikel Patrick Avery, and John Herndon) churns, thrusting the music forward as the harmonic instruments collectively bow between frenzied, futurist chromaticism and soaring, pan-humanist pentatonic anthems.
Somehow swirling the most adventurous elements of avant-garde jazz and contemporary classical into the most universal attractors of pop music, the cosmic opera of Dimensional Stardust is a pure spiritual extension of Exploding Star Orchestra’s unifying ethos, and a new peak in the prolific creative career of Rob Mazurek.
Exploding Star Orchestra are:
Rob Mazurek — director, composer, piccolo trumpet, electronic renderings, modular synth
Damon Locks — voice, electronics, texts
Nicole Mitchell — flutes
Macie Stewart — violins
Tomeka Reid — cellos
Joel Ross — vibraphone
Jeff Parker — guitar
Jaimie Branch — trumpet
Angelica Sanchez — acoustic piano, electric piano
Ingebrigt Håker Flaten — bass
Chad Taylor — drums, percussion
Mikel Patrick Avery — drums, percussion
John Herndon — drum machines
You can hear tracks from the album all this week on Morning Mari*, 9:00–9:15 GMT.