Photo: Peter Gannushkin / Courtesy of Cuneiform Records

Free Agent of Sound: An Interview with Rob Mazurek

The heralded avant-jazz great Rob Mazurek speaks of space operas, working through grief with music, and, of course, the singularity.
Rob Mazurek / Exploding Star Orchestra
Galactic Parables: Volume 1

“Ken Vandermark worked tirelessly to put Chicago improvisers on a global map,” said guitarist Nels Cline of the windy city’s saxophone all-star. He was lamenting the fact that his new home turf of Los Angeles did not have its own Ken Vandermark.

It’s true that the recipient of a 1999 MacArthur fellowship has worked in a bewildering number of ensembles to make Chicago synonymous with adventurous jazz, but he certainly isn’t acting alone. While Vandermark goes about his business with fellow reedists, Chicago boasts yet another musician who has been doing the same thing from the brass section of the family: Rob Mazurek.

As of this writing, the cornetist/visual artist/writer is only 50 years old, yet he’s not only compose and recorded an embarrassing amount of high-quality modern jazz but has managed to collaborate with the likes of Roscoe Mitchell, Pharoah Sanders, and the late Bill Dixon. His Chicago Underground guise has undergone many gestations (duo, trio, quartet, orchestra, back to a duo) and key players like drummer Chad Taylor are never far from his reach. Mazurek even dipped his toe in post-rock waters with the brief-lived but still delightful Isotope 217 where he got to poach various members of Chicago’s beloved Tortoise. There’s never a dull moment when following the career of Rob Mazurek, a fact of life when you consider what he just recently unleashed.

The Exploding Star Orchestra, one of Rob Mazurek’s most ambitious outlets, has been assembling the pieces of a science fiction story conceived by the composer. All of the elements of the story have reached a proverbial point-of-no-return in the narrative with Galactic Parables Vol. 1. The man had so much to say about the themes that an email exchange was the only safe way to preserve the details. The following is the story’s development:

“I started to conceive this idea of a larger work while making the first Exploding Star Orchestra recording We Are All From Somewhere Else and the Tigersmilk recording Android Love Cry. Android Love Cry abstractly tells the story of scientists trying to develop ways to enhance androids with feeling modules in order for them to assimilate a little more seamlessly into world culture. The song titles and title for this release are all quite provocative and I began to write, paint, sing, play, compose ideas centered around the idea of an imaginary alchemist, writer, painter, philosopher, video artist, plant specialist, futurologist Helder Velasquez Smith.

“A figure that is perhaps a cross between Harry Smith, Plato, Leonardo Da Vinci, Agnes Martin, Edwin Hubble, Albert Ayler, Ursula le Guin, Stan Breakage, Sun Ra, Steve Jobs … and to construct stories within stories based on this imaginary person’s unfinished Mega Novel/Graphic/Video Novel titled The Book of Sound. The suites I composed for all the Exploding Star recordings and some other key recordings are the outline for the story. We Are All From Somewhere Else suggests a story of evolution pertaining to star matter and the trials and tribulations of a sting ray. ‘Cosmic Tomes for Sleepwalking Lovers’ sonically evokes a kind of drugged out daze future dystopia.

“Constellations for Inner Light Projections (for Bill Dixon)” suggests the idea (through interpretation of a video score) that life out there begins in here and is also a tribute to the way Bill Dixon forged new paths in the way the trumpet is perceived and could be used to create new other worldly sound. Stars Have Shapes deals with the possibility of other life forms in the galaxies with the thought of Albert Ayler’s mysterious death and out of this world musical conception. Atmospheres for Roscoe was developed out of my reverence for the great Roscoe Mitchell and all he has done in life to project future sound. The Space Between hits upon the idea of alternate reality, memory past and future and the decaying city through video, dance, text and sound. Sixty Three Moons of Jupiter suggests space travel, stellar radio wave communication, boxing and time travel in relation to the many moons of Jupiter.”

Electronic Works is a kind of futuristic retelling of the second half of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, and the moral and psychological implications of this pertaining to half human, half android state of mind. Alternate Moon Cycles is a one note mantra towards the understanding of what happens after we pass from this life to the next and how the shifting moon determines mood and feel. Vortice of the Faun is a sonic fable of how a faun and tiger interact to create strange and wonderful happenings. Galactic Parables Volume 1 calls into question the past on earth pertaining to future possibilities, slavery, the idea of this planet not being ready yet for the coming of happiness and freedom for all beings and a new song cycle I recently composed for Emmett Kelly under the title Alien Flower Sutra in which the lyrics speak of a time leading up to and after human existence séances, where bio technology reaches a certain place where the technology can actually build itself without the intervention of humans.”

The age of singularity’s debate tends to run along the lines of Has It Happened Yet? vs. It’s Already Begun, a subject in which Rob Mazurek obvious has a clear opinion: “I believe we are already there and the idea of singularity, at least when it comes to information and now/eventually bio tech information, will continue to transform into the next strange area where the possibility of new species will become reality. Certainly information has overwhelmed the concept of experience and as this happens more and more the idea of reality will shift and is shifting in such an extreme way that humans will have a hard time figuring out what is reality and what is non-reality and what is all that area in between.”

Of all the ensembles Rob Mazurek has written for and recorded with, he holds the Exploding Star Orchestra in a very special place. He goes so far as to say that it’s the “conceptual, compositional and philosophical center of all my work.” What earns them such high praise from a working musician who has so many recordings to his credit?

“Exploding Star Orchestra is the life star of musical, visual and conceptual ideas,” he starts telling us. “Everybody in the Orchestra are connected in one way or another to other projects I am involved with and compose rigorously for (Chicago Underground, Sao Paulo Underground, Black Cube SP, Pulsar Quartet, Octet, Starlicker, Alternate Moon Cycles, Alien Flower Sutra, Some Jellyfish Live Forever, etc.) so, just as I am creating an Opera around the idea of a book or books inside of a book, the satellites of the Orchestra act as Orchestras within Orchestras, affording us the possibility of a higher understanding, creating a vocabulary and sound distinctly their own but contributing to the whole by constant rigorous projection of sonic material in order to communicate sound together towards the idea of Love, Happiness and Health for all things.

“Each person that has been involved in ESO has such an amazing, thoughtful and powerful personality,” he continues. “I search for musicians who thrive on the sound of the whole. I want everybody playing together all the time, even if not on the same continent. Egoless projection of sound can create other colors. Ego is only one color, or possibly no color at all.”

Exploding Star Orchestra compositions tend to be long and sprawling while music written for the smaller bands like the Chicago Underground Duo or the São Paulo Underground tend to be briefer. If this seems like it’s on purpose, Mazurek never gives the notion any initial thought, explaining that “I compose with only the sound in mind really.”

Recording and writing for one’s modern jazz heroes can be either nerve-wracking or thrilling, and Rob Mazurek adopted the latter outlook when it came to working with giants such as Roscoe Mitchell, Pharoah Sanders, and Bill Dixon:

“I first wrote Atmospheres for Roscoe for the Frankfurt jazz Festival some years ago,” he starts. “I wrote ideas, cells if you will, short phrases to be used or not used based on the flow of the piece. There were also composed longer passages which we used as transitional statements and some key ostinato like illuminations to set the piece in a kind of sun frame of motion. This piece was never released on a record but was my introduction with working with Roscoe. Soon after that I invited Roscoe to be a key Voice for a new suite I was composing titled: Sixty Three Moons of Jupiter, which was released on Rogue Art Records. Roscoe blended especially well in this recording/performance and was a pleasure to work with.

“I met Bill Dixon at the Guelph International Jazz Festival in Canada,” he notes. “We immediately hit it off and soon after I invited him to play with Exploding Star Orchestra at the Chicago Jazz Festival. We played a composition of his and a composition of mine utilizing video score. Bill was wonderful to work with and we ended up recording this music for Thrill Jockey Records “Bill Dixon with Exploding Star Orchestra”. Bills concept of playing is so original. His sound and ideas really have the capacity to transform a thing … his sound really transformed the suites on this recording into something spectacular.”

A critically well-received recording on the Cunieform record label is actually one of two albums Rob Mazurek dedicated to the memory of his late mother. While Mother Ode was a modestly-recorded concert that saw limited release, it was Return the Tides: Ascension Suite and Holy Ghost that allowed listeners to vicariously experience the musician’s grief through the powerful music. And as Mazurek explains, it automatically became therapeutic:

Mother Ode is a heartfelt dedication to my mother. The way this particular show/recording transpired was special. I had decided to fill a box with instruments, books, apples, iPad, things … and to slowly open the box and pull objects from the box to play or consider. My mother’s energy was shining down that day and I was able to harness this Mother Energy and treat each movement with grace and power, which was her. This recording was captured on her birthday July 13th at Corbett vs. Dempsey Gallery.

Return the Tides was made and recorded a few weeks after my mother’s passing. I was really reeling from some kind of other feeling that I could not really describe. We played this music first a few days before the recording with the great Pharoah Sanders in Sao Paulo. It was electric. When we entered the studio I had only one request which was for everybody to really release themselves from whatever was going on in their minds and project a unified feeling. After a little Cachaca, the second take of the recording was the one. There was a deep silence at the end of the take and someone started singing very quietly … we all joined in and finished this end music with this amazing sound. I burst into tears after this and Guilherme, Mauricio, Rodrigo, Rogerio, and Thomas embraced me and all was alright.”

All’s well that ends well. But I couldn’t help but feel that the remark about “Albert Ayler’s mysterious death” just kind of hung there like a dangling participle. The saxophone hero of ’60s and ’70s avant-garde jazz did leave a mysterious existence and his death raised far too many questions. Having felt guilty over the mental breakdown of his brother Donald, it is widely believed that he threw himself off a Statue of Liberty ferry. The fragile mental state of the Ayler brothers may have stemmed from the time they experienced a hallucination while star-gazing, quite possibly a vehicle traveling the heavens on behalf of intelligent life beyond our world.

Do all of these pieces of Ayler’s life fit together somehow? Rob Mazurek can’t rule it out: “It is so mysterious. I believe anything is possible.”

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