Live Review: Rob Mazurek’s Exploding Star Orchestra, Chicago, IL, March 24, 2023

The Exploding Star Orchestra is Rob Mazurek’s vehicle for blowing minds and reshaping worlds. For more than a decade and a half, the multi-instrumentalist has guided the variably configured big band through appearances on three continents. Its first performance in his former hometown of Chicago in more than five years determined to be more than just a concert. With support from the city’s Experimental Sound Studio and International Anthem (the label that released the Orchestra’s last two albums), the Exploding Star Orchestra not only played music from the new Lightning Dreamers LP, but Mazurek and Co. also showed the processes behind its creation.

The event took place under the dome of Adler Planetarium, which provided a suitably cosmic surface upon which to project Mazurek’s visuals. A painter, sculptor and digital artist as well as a musician, he spends a typical day at his home studio in Marfa, Texas, improvising electronic music, whose signals he translates into visuals, whose digital information is then fed back into the music. Some of this work might eventually manifest as pure sound, flickering light or compositions for one of Mazurek’s bands; in this setting, he could finally unleash the whole shebang.

A digital projection flashed an ever-changing stream of vividly colored, abstract shapes derived from his paintings and animations over the audience’s heads, while the Orchestra, which on this night numbered eight musicians besides its leader, transformed the stylistically disparate pieces from Lightning Dreamers into an enveloping maelstrom. Electric pianists Angelica Sanchez and Craig Taborn pushed layers of plush texture back and forth over the intricate, tripartite grooves of bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and two drummers, Chad Taylor and Gerald Cleaver. Mazurek’s trumpets and wordless cries, Tomeka Reid’s cello and Nicole Mitchell’s flute and voice periodically surfaced out of the flow, issuing sharp, energetic statements, while Damon Locks’ proclamations flickered in and out of the mix like an erratic signal from some interstellar radio announcer. Together, they reimagined the brooding sound of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew as a force for transcendent uplift.

The concert’s climactic moment was a visual one. At one point, Mitchell put down her flute, spoke into Mazurek’s ear and pointed up to toward the dome. As he looked up, his own horn came down, and for a moment, the two of them gazed with undisguised awe at the spectacle that the Orchestra had unleashed. In a time when so many forces conspire to bring people down, this concert was an invitation to look up and out past the horizon.

—Bill Meyer; photos by Alex Inglizian