[11 December 2012]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
With Rob Mazurek’s ever-expanding space metaphors, you would have thought that this new Pulsar Quartet of his was barreling for the outer limits. There is a good overlap of personnel in both this group, the Exploding Star Orchestra and Starlicker, just to name a scant few of Mazurek’s other ensembles. But Stellar Pulsations stays closer to our orbit, playing like a classicist jazz album from the days of when Miles Davis and Bill Evans played side by side. Having followed Mazurek’s career thus far, I honestly expected this to be another style-defying flights of fancy. Not this time, not with this band.
Rob Mazurek’s talents as a performer and composer continue to be matched by his knack for roping in outside talent. He’s got quite the rhythm section with Matthew Lux on the bass and John Herndon on drums. Throwing her weight around is newcomer Angelica Sanchez, a pianist good enough for Wadada Leo Smith, Chad Taylor and a string of her own solo albums on the Clean Feed label. The chemistry achieved by these four feels almost too easily obtained. If there is any raw tension to be had here, everyone smooths it over with their near-perfect playing. When Sanchez rips up and down the keys, she does it with a Cecil Taylor-like accuracy. Mazurek, sometimes a master manipulator of sound, falls back on cornet lines are very linear and tonal but never static or inexpressive. John Herndon pushes the sound forward as he did on all of those Tortoise albums, yet he clashes with no one along the way. His pounding approach somehow fits into the group’s overall mix. Is it a trick of a studio or the skill of a musician? Given how many times Mazurek has played with Herndon, I’d bet on the second guess.
Each track’s name is is an adjective paired with a planet’s name. “Primitive Jupiter”, “Magic Saturn”, “Spiritual Mars” - it’s not as gimmicky as it all sounds. These adjectives don’t feel arbitrary, though “Spanish Venus” and “Folk Song Neptune” look a tad unusual at first glance. Chicago guitarist Jeff Parker, who by the way does not play on the album, writes liner notes that praise Mazruek’s use of empty space. “These days, it’s a rarity to come across a musician who finds their niche in saying more with less”, he writes. It’s enough to reevaluate the big, troubled sounds that bubbled up on Playground by the Chicago Underground Orchestra or any other release by the Exploding Star Orchestra. Stellar Pulsations provides a nice sense of contrast to these works, indeed sounding like orbs of rock or gas spinning around the sun at their own pace.
So does the cosmos actually swing? Does space groove? There are a number of musicians in Chicago who are banking on it, drawing parallels between entropy and improvisation. It’s all wrapped up in what I couldn’t say is Mazurek’s most striking project. But the music of the spheres can move in mysterious ways. Think about it.