When a star goes nova, it swallows up neighboring stars fiercely. Chicago-based cornetist and musical renaissance man Rob Mazurek has definitely spread his nucleus when assembling the Exploding Star Orchestra. In a wide sweep to team up with hometown peers, Mazurek has managed to get flutist Nicole Mitchell, trombonist Jeb Bishop, saxophonist Greg Ward, drummer Mike Reed and nine other top-tier musicians into one band. And they managed to record an entire album with legendary trumpeter/composer Bill Dixon. Not everyone can pull this off and still call it a side project. Okay, maybe Ken Vandermark.
But now that the credibility of the Exploding Star Orchestra has been established, we can move on to Stars Have Shapes, which is one strange album. And that’s certainly saying something. Not only does the album go through numerous stylistic shifts over the course of four tracks, but many of these genres lack a convenient name, making it a delight to the open-minded listener, but hard on me since I’m attempting to write about it.
Right off the bat, “Ascension Ghost Impression #2” is a musical storm. If Mazurek was at a loss for arranging music for 14 musicians, this is the part of the album where they all just play. And contrary to the kind of free jazz that could scare listeners away from avant-garde, “Ascension Ghost Impression #2” plays like a steady, building maelstrom rather than racket. As Vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz (now a bandleader on Delmark in his own right) arranges the building blocks for the swirls to follow, Mitchell, Mazurek and other winds trill along inside a dizzying flange. Things don’t really break free until you are 10 (!) minutes into the track, and even then, the slow jazz motif that appears is just a tease, as if Mazurek was saying “just kidding”.
“Ascension Ghost Impression #2” takes up about 40% of Stars Have Shapes, warranting the most discussion. But an ever bigger surprise is, clocking in at nearly 19 minutes, “Three Blocks of Light”. This is when you could have sworn that Brian Eno stepped into the control room, taking over the sessions with healthy doses of Ambien—I mean, ambient. The first five minutes or so are bogged down in confusion and skittering white noise. Then, the anesthetic kicks in, and you are on the airport escalator for the next 13 minutes. This warm kind of sound is often neglected in avant-garde circles, perhaps out of fear of being labeled “trance”. But the Exploding Star Orchestra, for all its collective resumes and virtuosity, can hypnotize listeners with the best of them.
“ChromoRocker” and “Impression #1” take up the remaining 11 minutes of the album, making them prone to being overlooked. But the truth of the matter is that the former is a delicate balance of abstract and funk while the latter grabs the lounge style and gives it a nice, sprawling twist. Yeah, you try doing this with 14 musicians, where two of them are drummers and two of them are bassists, and see how un-muddled you can make it sound. Supergroups get the (sometimes deservedly) reputation of being an ego circus without a centerpiece. Exploding Star Orchestra’s Stars Have Shapes is an example of how such a large group can escape being clumsy. Hell, they can even be downright great.