[23 July 2013]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Rob Mazurek has been all around, playing with almost everyone in every setting when it comes to Chicago’s and São Paulo’s progressive jazz scenes. One of the more ambitious detours he’s pursued is the Chicago all-star conglomerate Exploding Star Orchestra. This monstrous mammoth of a project saw many of Chicago’s finest coming and going, including Jeff Parker, Mike Reed, John McEntire, John Herndon, Jeb Bishop, and Nicole Mitchell, just to name a few. Their approach was so wide-reaching that they even managed to rope in trumpet legend Bill Dixon into recording an album with them. The Exploding Star Orchestra didn’t try to hide anything—their sound was as big as their name, as big as their personnel. Now that the Exploding Star Orchestra has morphed into the Exploding Star Electro Acoustic Ensemble, all jazz inclinations have left their sound. What’s left is the cosmic noise that has permeated though much of Mazurek’s compositional work as of late, the enormous lump of sound that some listeners may interpret as a creative void. To the credit of the skeptic, consider the origin of a black hole while reading the band’s name again.
The music for Mazurek’s latest Exploding Star endeavor is actually a vehicle for a visual presentation, one under the same name—The Space Between. Performance artist Marianne M. Kim has compiled a video to go with the music, and it comes as a DVD packaged with the CD. Suddenly, it’s not such a weird thing to notice that almost all eight tracks of the album are precisely five minutes long. There is no break between these movements, so track titles would become arbitrary if it weren’t for the spoken-word cameo courtesy of Damon Locks. The Space Between is thus a 40-minute blob of music, and dissecting it down to each “song”‘s minutiae wouldn’t help anybody. For this, you need macro-vision. And judging from the big picture, even Rob Mazurek’s most enthusiastic devotees will wonder what for.
The Space Between is not the result of a lack of musical acumen. No, when you tell a room full of these people to go nova, they do it with style. These people include Nicole Mitchell on flute, Matt Bauder on electronics, Jeff Kowalkowski on piano, Carrie Biolo on percussion, Mauricio Takara on cavaquinho, John Herndon on drums, and Guilherme Granado on sampling. It’s that The Space Between feels like artiness for its own sake while the real intentions, should they exist in any tangible form, are kept hidden from the listener/viewer. A theme is stated in the packaging, one preoccupied with the cosmic metaphor of Indra’s Net. The ensemble’s cavernous roars do signify emptiness quite well, but the coalescing seems to stop there. The DVD sheds even less light on the concept. What starts out as grainy, abstract images ends as grainy, abstract images. In between, we are treated to images of Kim and Mazurek standing in a room with a thick block in the center of the screen to separate them. She does a handstand, he toots a few notes, the camera moves around, disaffected faces stare. “This makes no sense,” my oldest daughter said as she looked in my direction, obviously looking for some clarification. I had to tell her that I was in no better position to understand.
Lord knows I have not procured every recording that Rob Mazurek has been involved with, but I generally like or love everything I’ve heard from him. Even Sweet and Vicious Like Frankenstein satisfies my fantasies in which Brian Eno and George Lewis meet in a near-fatal car wreck. But The Space Between went to art school for too long and forgot how to connect with anyone. Considering how many albums Mazurek has made, the occasional burp never hurt anyone.