Hot on the heels of a year that saw him as a leader behind two of the most entertaining and engaging records in contemporary music, composer and cornet player Rob Mazurek has yet another feather to put in his cap: a collaboration with a legendary jazz icon. It was last February when his fifteen-piece cosmic ensemble, the Exploding Star Orchestra, made its debut with the epic We Are All from Somewhere Else. The album was a dizzying, surreal mixture of the avant-jazz and post-rock leanings of its Chicago players (including flautist Nicole Mitchell and guitarist Jeff Parker) and the exotic strains of Mazurek’s adopted home of Brazil, tied up in a sweetly imagistic tale of interstellar stingrays and boundless love.
The other record, Chronicle, was released along with bassist Jason Ajemian and drummer Chad Taylor under the banner of the Chicago Underground Trio. This album was much tighter and much more focused, even in the loopy, scattered electronic passages which augmented the traditional jazz instrumentation. The music was designed to go hand-in-hand with an elaborate artistic video presentation, and makes use of a vivid sonic palette that paints tone and shading thickly in the air. Both records make use of jazz idioms and familiar post-rock structures, making them approachable and accessible to fans of both styles. Most importantly, these albums are packed with adventurousness and novelty; out of familiar roots, these groups create surprise and satisfaction.
Now the Exploding Star Orchestra has returned, ready to embark on another expansive journey into the outer limits of music, and they’ve brought along a rather notable guest. Jazz legend Bill Dixon, whose trumpet was behind the 1964 “October Revolution in Jazz”, has been roped into Rob Mazurek’s orbit, and appears alongside the orchestra on a record that is part collaboration with, and part tribute to, the legendary innovator.
Bill Dixon with the Exploding Star Orchestra is a live experiment. The album features two compositions: occupying the center is a Mazurek-penned tune called “Constellations for Innerlight Projections (For Bill Dixon)”, flanked on either side by takes of Dixon’s “Entrances”. The sequencing provides a feeling of symmetry that’s both recognizably pleasing and occasionally disorienting, particularly when the composed portions of “Entrances/Two” echo the memories of the first take, only to hide those linking passages amidst a flurry of spontaneously generated sound. All three takes were recorded live without any editing or other tinkering that might adulterate the spirit in which they were conjured up. With some basic preparation, Dixon and Mazurek set out to capture what results when a set of capable, creative people allow themselves to listen and be led by each other’s music.
Dixon’s “Entrances” is as multifaceted as its title, which implies an introductory portal to his musical ideas and also refers to the hypnotic charm of the piece. The orchestra slips and slides through Dixon’s denotative path, and deftly responds to his on-the-spot instruction. The track shifts like light through a prism, glimmers of color briefly come into focus before being supplanted by other elements of the band’s spectrum. Attempts to grasp any fixed location in “Entrances” are futile, and the individual players become indistinguishable. Dixon’s trumpet blends with the dueling coronets of Mazurek and Josh Berman, piercing the steady rhythmic tumult that gives the music what little sense of form and cohesion it has. It’s not a song for the faint of heart, in either of its two incarnations. It’s a beauteous, drifting cloud of music that resists cold analysis; it must be allowed to wash over and envelop, must be afforded multiple explorations. Each run through seems to reveal new pockets of sound that may have previously floated by undetected. It’s the music of deep space, sparse and incalculably vast yet loaded with power and potential.
Mazurek’s centerpiece, “Constellations for Innerlight Projections”, begins with a quirky little spoken word bit read by Damon Locks of the Eternals. It’s a little beat, in danger of fading purple, but Locks’ deep, measured voice keeps it from going astray, and the surging din which follows it adds a bold punctuation mark that carries the listener over the top. “Constellations” clocks in at around twenty-five minutes, and after that initial burst of energy, seems content to play in the silent spaces. It reflects some of Dixon’s compositions, but more often draws on a more structured sound that recalls the Exploding Star Orchestra’s previous work.
Bill Dixon with the Exploding Star Orchestra never bears too much resemblance to either of the parties involved, instead maintaining a precious balance in which both can offer their talents and skills without overpowering or deferring to one another. The record is an opportunity to hear Dixon in a rare ensemble setting, and see how his mind arranges the tools presented to him by Mazurek, while also seeing how nimbly the Exploding Star Orchestra can help the master realize his visions without compromising them.