Exploding Star Orchestra: We Are All From Somewhere Else (2006)
This record bristles with the hubris of an artist who ignores conventional notions of prevailing styles, blithely imposes his own aesthetic vision, and achieves a rousing artistic success in the end. That artist is Chicago-turned-São Paulo cornetist Rob Mazurek, who composed and conducted this performance.
This record also bristles with the sound of electric eels. That's not a clumsy metaphor: I mean, literally, that Mazurek recorded eels in a special tank at a research laboratory in Brazil (two species, "Pulsating" and "Waveform ) and you can hear them during a musical passage entitled "Psycho-Tropic Electric Eel Dream.
Why are the musicians improvising around the sound of electric eels? Well, it's all apparently very heavy. According to the press kit, this is "a story involving an exploding star, cosmic transformation, a sting ray, the travels of the sting ray, intelligent conversations with electric eels, the destructive power of humans, the death and ascension of sting ray, the transformation of sting ray ghost to flying bird, and the transformation of bird to phoenix to rocket to flying burning matter to a new-born star. (There is other complicated stuff about "text-flipping, and indeed the packaging features a poem that you can read forward or backward.)
The record consists of two suites (Sting Ray and the Beginning of Time / Cosmic Tomes for Sleep Walking Lovers) joined in the middle by pianist Jim Baker's impressionistic "Black Sun. The first two parts of "Sting Ray call to mind Frank Tortiller's similarly loud, percussive, and vibraphone-laden arrangements on the Orchestre National de Jazz's Close to Heaven (Le Chant du Monde, 2006). After the electric eel interlude, there is a sweet and slightly spacey closing movement (here, as elsewhere, flautist Nicole Mitchell and guitarist Jeff Parker stand out among the soloists).
The surging opening minutes of "Cosmic Tomes boldly employ the composed chaos John Coltrane used on Ascension (Impulse!, 1965), featured here more as an organizational technique than a path to spiritual transcendence; this coalesces unexpectedly into a tightly disciplined minimalist passage out of the Steve Reich school (but with more exuberant and soulful execution). The second suite ends, like the first, on a moody and slightly weird-sounding note.
Orchestral big-band jazz recordings about human communication with electric eels being rather thin on the ground, we can rejoice in the release of this effort. I would venture to say that even if more jazz artists addressed the eel communication issue, this record would stand out in the field regardless. That may sound glib, but the program underlying this composition is so audaciously weird that one cannot help but feel a slightly drunken glee when Mazurek succeeds so ably. As in the best music by Sun Ra (whose thematic conceits similarly strained credulity but won over the listener in the end), the ensemble swings throughout, solos bursting out with aplomb. Glorious.
Track Listing: Sting Ray and the Beginning of Time: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 (Psycho-Tropic Electric Eel Dream), Part 4; Black Sun; Cosmic Tomes For Sleep Walking Lovers: Part 1, Part 2; Part 3; Part 4 (Fifteen Ways Towards a Finite Universe); Part 5.
Personnel: Rob Mazurek: composition, direction, cornet, electronics; Nicole Mitchell: flutes, voice; Jeb Bishop: trombone; Corey Wilkes: flugelhorn; Josh Berman: cornet; Matt Bauder: bass clarinet, tenor saxophone; Jeff Parker: guitar; Jim Baker: piano, ARP synthesizer, pianette; Jason Adasiewicz: vibraphone; John McEntire: marimba, tubular bells, edits, recording engineer; Matt Lux: electric bass guitar; Jason Ajemian: acoustic bass; Mike Reed: drums, percussion, saw; John Herndon: drums.