Let's face it, they might as well have gone ahead and called this 'What's Hip in Chicago?'
Exploding Star Orchestra is, for the purposes of this recording, a 13-piece big-band featuring the most noteworthy denizens of the exact point at which Chicago's avant-jazz and post-rock fraternities collide, including Corey Wilkes of Art Ensemble of Chicago alongside John McEntire, Jeff Parker and John Herndon of Tortoise. It's led by cornetist, composer and Chicago Underground mainstay Rob Mazurek and was originally convened in response to a commission from The Chicago Cultural Centre to put together a show in Chicago's Millennium Park for the "Made in Chicago" festival. After a dozen or so performances, Mazurek led the Orchestra into McEntire's world famous Soma Studio in Chicago to capture what Mazurek refers to as the "sound projections" created by this decidedly weighty ensemble.
You see, despite the fact that this project is so cool you could keep a side of beef in it for a week, and has probably earned Mazurek some kind of honorary seat in Chicago's City Hall, he's not one for shallow trappings. He's got weightier ideas on his mind, and bigger fish to fry -- in particular one cosmic stingray. We Are All from Somewhere Else is an instrumental concept album, that creates a sound-narrative to accompany Mazurek's hallucinatory, circular fable of an exploding star, the interstellar travels of an astral stingray, conversations with electric eels and the death, ascension and transfiguration of the cosmic stingray from ghost to bird to phoenix to rocket to new-born star. And that's not all. In the spirit of the genuine jazz mystic visionary, Mazurek offers up this entire project as a kind of gift to humankind, a healing force designed to help us discover a better sense of balance in the universe. His liner notes describe the project as an attempt to "imagine the possibility of a non-border/non-restrictive world in which we can live full creative lives without the stress and absurdity of war and separation of any kind... It has to do with the quest for life and non-life, form and non-form, structure and blown structures, in which to expand and contract at the same time and different times, the joy of frequency and tonal and non-tonal harmonic bliss."
Quite clearly, this whole endeavour is some heavy business. But even if you don't dig the whole New Age subplot (and maybe you should, what with the year 2012 and the end of history as we know it rushing ever nearer, about to consume all civilisation for all time and launch us into an unimaginable era of cosmic realignment... or something like that), the good news is that the music contained herein stands magnificently on its own -- and just happens to swing its nuts off.
The four-part suite, "Sting Ray and the Beginning of Time", jumps straight in with a huge, heavy, Arkestral big-band sound, powerfully reminiscent of George Russell's classic -- and equally ambitious -- suite, "Electronic Sonata for Souls Loved by Nature". A relentless, Eastern sounding riff paves the way for a beautifully Oriental, extended flute solo before, three full minutes in, the whole piece shifts up a gear with the introduction of a fanfare-like head, followed immediately by a swooning, falling, dreamlike motif and then back to the riff for more solos and finally giving way to a free-form breakdown bristling with McEntire's strangely incongruous marimba. It's a hugely exhilarating opening 10 minutes that sets the listener up for a dense and spiritual journey.
After a brief, dark, modal interlude, we're plunged into the murky sound world of the third part of the suite, "Psycho-tropic Electric Eel Dream", a group improvisation based around recordings of two different species of electric eel in a tank at INPA Research Laboratory, Manaus. It's a thick, abstract soup of sound built of pulsing electronic rumbles, restrained trumpet parps, subtle sax squeaks, marimba rattles and a thousand more unidentifiable sounds -- all coming together to evoke space -- both inner and outer. The final part of the suite is a complex, Dolphy-like, mid-tempo stroller with Zappa-esque, cinematic statements and marimbas, vibes and bells adding a shimmering, hallucinatory depth to what might otherwise have seemed almost straight-ahead jazz in its simple beauty.
After a short solo piano recital, we're into the second suite, "Cosmic Tones for Sleep Walking Lovers", which wells up in a burst of joyous, chaotic free-jazz, smeared with strange, subliminal computer treatments, before giving way to a typically Mazurekian piece -- strongly reminiscent of the Chicago Underground Duo's take on Steve Reich's circular, minimal pattern music: an ever-turning wheel of small gestures, with marimbas and vibes conjuring Reich's "Music for Mallets, Organ and Voice", jazzy horn licks providing a little fire under all this ice-cool posturing, and a richly burbling bass underpinning everything. Then it's straight into a big, slow, bluesy piece of real jazz that comes on like an outtake from Coltrane's Africa Brass, with a distorted electric guitar solo and a cosmic ARP synth solo sliding out like Dr. Patrick Gleason's contributions to Herbie Hancock's early '70s Mwandishi excursions.
After all that's gone before, the final piece is strangely anticlimactic -- a restrained, meandering piece with meditative flute and loose brush-work, which just ends, abruptly, crying out for a recapitulation that doesn't come. Chances are, by the time they got around to laying down the last track, Mazurek was off in some other uncharted region of the cosmos, waiting for the rest of us to catch up. There could be worse ways of spending your weekend.