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Exploding Star Orchestra - Stars Have Shapes

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Artist: Exploding Star Orchestra

Album: Stars Have Shapes

Label: Delmark

Review date: Dec. 7, 2010

Whenever anyone can keep together a large ensemble playing improvised music for any period of time, I’m impressed. When you’re Rob Mazurek, and you keep your Chicagoan sound mass together while living part-time in Brazil, I’m even more impressed. Given his past associations, it goes without saying that in addition to Mazurek (as canny a composer as he is deployer of sound), there are killer players on board: Nicole Mitchell (flute, voice), Matt Bauder (reeds), trombonist Jeb Bishop, Jason Stein (bass clarinet), Greg Ward (alto), vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, bassists Matthew Lux and Josh Abrams (the former electrified), drummers John Herndon and Mike Reed, percussionist Carrie Biolo and pianist Jeff Kowalkowski.

What’s notable over Mazurek’s successive large ensemble releases is how fully he’s developed his personality in his use of electronics. On Stars Have Shapes, he’s collected a ton of field recordings that he adds to his cornet and arrangements. There’s Brazilian rain, Copenhagen bikes, insects during an eclipse, electric eel drones (seriously), tons of prepared instruments, and massed feedback from layered cornets. He uses this to generate a simply huge sound, especially on “Ascension Ghost Impression #2,” with a heady psychedelic vertigo at the heart of the piece that combines with free energy even as it manages (tough thing, this) to avoid free mush. What’s more, there’s no loss of the individual’s voice in this intoxicating group sound: You can hear Mitchell’s playful flute dances, Adasiewicz’s intense vibes punctuation, and an abundance of singing horns. Only midway through the 20-minute piece do we hear a (too brief) gorgeous theme emerge, stately as Ellington, sentimental as a Shepp big band piece, unruly like Bill Dixon’s Enchanted Messenger Orchestra.

The group’s heart is audibly in pieces with that vast a scope. But the remaining three performances are vivid in their own right, and wisely avoid repeating ideas or revisiting territories. “Chromorocker” is, as the name sounds, a grooving miniature with layered polyphony and, yes, some tasty chromaticism. I can imagine all kinds of ways it could be extended, but here it’s fairly brief. It’s on the subsequent “Three Blocks of Light” that you can hear the field recordings most clearly, with overtones and drone sounding like a wall of bamboo flutes, but far from the forest imaginings of the New Ager. The track wends its way to a superb chamber improv section, where a swarm of cicadas bathes a group of winds, piano, and vibes. “Impression #1” is the most thematically realized piece, with a clear linear direction and satisfyingly complex voicings (very nice stuff from Bauder and Bishop, especially), even as it preserves the general sonic drift of the whole session.

This is one of those records that so thoroughly occupies its own space that you almost forget you’re listening to a piece of music; you simply exist in its environment for a time. It’s tough to realize music like this, which doesn’t focus on thematic extensions or line as much as it does on swells and sculptings of the sonic swirl. But Mazurek has done so really well, with an added emotional heft that’s known via its dedication to the departed Fred Anderson and Bill Dixon.

By Jason Bivins

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