Rob Mazurek’s Exploding Star Orchestra is built on challenging ground. Assembled from close to a dozen musicians so that they may travel the paths of the jazz cosmos previously mapped out by Sun Ra, “approachable” may be the last word that some listeners will apply to this ensemble. When you factor in Chicago cornetist Rob Mazurek’s larger ambitions, you have a genuine puzzle on your hands.
Galactic Parables: Volume 1 is a double album where the same program is performed in two different cities. The nature of the work is “an epic science fiction opera inspired by the writings of Samuel R. Delany and Stanisław Lem“, touching on themes like “an apocalyptic vision of alternate universes, machine reproduction run amuck, and the colonization of distant planets.” Sounds like a scary mess, doesn’t it? In practice though, Galactic Parables can be highly listenable and enticing to the lay listener if they can just treat it as a uniform wash of sound running over them. No, you don’t need to be a Lem scholar or a connoisseur of all things Ra. You just need a pair of ears and a brain that can fixate on the big picture, as if the Exploding Star Orchestra were one gigantic instrument. That is, after all, one of their strengths.
The first disc is a recording of a show in Sardegna, Italy, a gig that moved writer Amiri Baraka to admit that he was impressed with the Exploding Star Orchestra’s synthesis of the old with the new: “Very shocking, actually, to see how well they absorbed all of that Sun Ra influence and went on to do their own thing.” Paying homage to your elders while taking uncharted steps forward is a tricky thing to do, but Mazurek has stumbled upon the perfect vehicle for such a tightrope act with the Exploding Star Orchestra. Within this group, everything melts into everything else. The music of yesterday and the music of tomorrow are thoroughly stirred. The individual musicians step back from their spotlights and recede into the nebula of sound that drifts seemingly to its own whim. Spoken word passages don’t take up any more room in the mix than a snare drum or a cavaquinho.
Ticking off the names of Exploding Star Orchestra’s impressive roster seems beside the point since the music isn’t the least bit ego driven — but the musicians deserve mention. Nicole Mitchell is on the flute, Matthew Bauder handles reeds, Jeff Parker is on guitar and Angelica Sanchez plays the piano. Drummer Chad Taylor and bassist Matthew Lux hold down the unorthodox rhythms and Guilherme Ganado and Mauricio Takara take turns on various keyboards and samplers. Damon Locks delivers the spoken word passages which are convenient signposts for the start of another movement.
Disc two is the Exploding Star Orchestra playing the same set on their own turf, albeit with different track sequencing and segues. Considering the fact that it takes approximately one hour for the ensemble to perform the work, comparing their Sardegna performance to their Chicago performance feels like hair-splitting. It could be that the two performances just so happened to excel in different areas, prompting Mazurek to just go ahead and include both shows. This is all guesswork, mere speculations dwarfed by the presence of a compelling piece of music residing on a large scale. When the Exploding Star Orchestra comes in for a crash landing to the sound of Locks’s back-slapped voice booming “The Arch of Slavery” or “Make Way to the City”, the listener can sense something greater than himself/herself coming to roost. It’s not the kind of presence that makes one feel insignificant, but the kind that baldly broadcasts the power of big music. There’s nothing else quite like it.