Plunged into a world of 1930s swing bands – Fletcher Henderson, Chick Webb, Jimmie Lunceford and, yes, Count Basie and Duke Ellington — for an upcoming piece in the Playboy Jazz Festival program, I was in need of some temporal balance, a contemporary counterpoint. Via my high school library’s subscription to Downbeat (every school with a music program should have one) the Exploding Star Orchestra came into my life.
Get this straight from the beginning. No devotee of ’30s era swing music would admit to hearing any similarities between their favorite bands and this 14-piece outfit of Chicago renegades led by cornetist and “electro-acoustic constructionist” Rob Mazurek. But there are shared qualities, ways that connect the time passed to now, ways that allow us to say, with an ambiguity we’ve always loved when it comes to this type of band, that the Exploding Star Orchestra is out-of-the-tradition.
How? There’s the glossy sheen of well-orchestrated harmonics; yes the usual section blends but also the drone of various samples that Mazurek has collected: rain, insects, bicycyle pedaling, that sort of thing as well as the weird electronics that Mazurek applies to his trumpet. Did I say weird? One drone is concoted from the sounds of electric eels.
Another commonality? Riffing, almost exactly as Sy Oliver or Don Redman might do it (“Impression #1″) or as they most certainly would not (“ChromoRocker”). Riffs give us a way to pin down the music, and there are just enough of them to make the contrasts strong and leave us anxious for resolution. As far out as the Exploding Star is, it occasionally is as down-earth as a Fletcher Henderson ballad.
The tradition the Star most honors is that of the Chicago avant garde. Mazurek uses the same methods of development and cacophonous backgrounds to frame solos as did/does the best of the AACM (Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians; you know, Muhal Richard Abrams, Fred Anderson, George Lewis, Roscoe Mitchell, Lester Bowie, those guys). Like the best outside composers, Mazurek is a master of resolution. The long opening track, “Ascension Ghost Impression,” starts on a lips-only whistle, heats up, comes to a boil, then simmers, suddenly resolved in a wonderful brass chord. Terrifying dissonance resolves in moments of startling calm.
The main innovation here is texture, the way Mazurek combines reeds, brass and percussion with the samples and strange electronics. Mazurek’s cornet adds Miles-like electronic trumpet effects. Central to the mix is Jason Adasiewicz’s vibraphone which adds both natural and hand-manipulated sound, soothing one moment, jangling the next. Soloists — the jagged sound of flutist Nicole Mitchell, Greg Ward’s alto saxophone, Jason Stein’s bass clarinet — add edgy, questionable behaviors.
High on our current play list, Stars Have Shapes captures the ups and down of modern life, its beauty as well as its confusion. That it’s dedicated to the memory of Bill Dixon and Fred Anderson says a lot. The big band the Orchestra most resembles? Sun Ra. It employs some of the same melodicism — floating, gentle — as soloists bubble to the surface. Also like the Arkestra, Exploding Star falls into worm holes even as it travels into deepest space. How can you not believe in time travel?–Cabbage Rabbit