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Exploding Star Orchestra: Stars Have Shapes

Troy Collins By

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Stars Have Shapes is dedicated to the memory of recently deceased seminal free jazz innovators Fred Anderson and Bill Dixon, both of whom played with cornetist Rob Mazurek's all-star ensemble on separate occasions, including the magnificent summit meeting Bill Dixon With Exploding Star Orchestra (Thrill Jockey, 2008). Featuring a rotating cast of renowned Chicago improvisers, the Exploding Star Orchestra has become a mainstay in the Windy City's jazz scene and a significant part of Mazurek's growing discography.

Sequenced like the two sides of a vinyl LP, Stars Have Shapes is a dense and expansive album, featuring two long-form compositions each followed by a shorter, more conventional tune serving as virtual postludes to the epics unfolding before them. More atmospheric and grandiose than the Orchestra's previous efforts, these extended work-outs exude a cinematic ambience previously hinted at, but never fully realized.

Introduced by a lone whistle, "Ascension Ghost Impression #2" opens the album with a lush aleatoric swell of electric and acoustic instruments orbiting a vague tonal center. Recalling the seminal work of New Thing luminaries Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders, it gradually grows in intensity, becoming more polyphonic and ecstatic by turns. After ascending to a rousing climax underscored by plangent glissandos from Mazurek and a swirling vortex of electronic noise, a brief but gorgeous melody surfaces in the eye of the storm, only to dissolve into the maelstrom before wraith-like tendrils materialize from the haze of an AACM-styled exploration of percolating electronics, skittering percussion and serpentine horns.

A scintillating mosaic of oscillating sine waves and ethereal tones (generated from samples of electric eels, rain from the Amazon and other esoteric sources) commences the atmospheric "Three Blocks of Light," which travels a very different path from the equally ambitious opener. After an impressionistic fanfare, a shimmering organ chord emerges, serenely undulating through the remainder of the piece, punctuated at random intervals by pointillist musings from an array of instruments. The piece's single-minded focus and pseudo-mystical austerity exudes a profound sense of timelessness, finding more concordance with the works of minimalist composers like Tony Conrad and La Monte Young than either of the album's dedicatees or more conventional jazz traditions.

"ChromoRocker" and "Impression #1" each serve as lyrical codas to the extended pieces. The former showcases the Orchestra's pneumatic rhythms and Nicole Mitchell's diaphanous flute stylings, while the later brings together disparate historical antecedents, fusing a winsome Miles Davisian melody (spearheaded by Mazurek's dulcet cornet) with a languid percussive groove recalling Sun Ra's hypnotic extraterrestrial vamps.

A richly nuanced exploration of electro-acoustic sound worlds, less concerned with the doctrines of jazz tradition than any of their previous releases, Stars Have Shapes is an evocative extension of the innovations made by the AACM in the Post-War years, and a bold step into the future for Mazurek and company.

Track Listing: Ascension Ghost Impression #2; ChromoRocker; Three Blocks of Light; Impression #1.

Personnel: Rob Mazurek: cornet, director, composer, electro-acoustic constructions; Nicole Mitchell: flutes, voice; Matthew Bauder: clarinet, tenor saxophone; Jeb Bishop: trombone; Jason Stein: bass clarinet; Greg Ward: alto saxophone; Jason Adasiewicz: vibraphone; Matthew Lux: bass guitar; Josh Abrams: bass; John Herndon: drums; Mike Reed: drums; Carrie Biolo: gongs, vibes, percussion; Jeff Kowalkowski: piano; Damon Locks: word rocker.

Title: Stars Have Shapes | Year Released: 2010 | Record Label: Delmark Records


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