Essential New Music: Rob Mazurek Exploding Star Orchestra/Small Unit’s “Spectral Fiction”

On March 24 of last year, Rob Mazurek’s Exploding Star Orchestra used Chicago’s Adler Planetarium as a launch pad for a multimedia spectacle that broadcast a transcendental message to the cosmos. MAGNET was there to take in the images projected onto the planetarium’s domed ceiling and the Orchestra’s hypnotic interpretations of music from the most recent Exploding Star Orchestra album, Lightning Dreamers. The next day, a subset of the orchestra’s personnel convened at the Corbett Vs. Dempsey gallery, where they improvised the music that appears on Spectral Fiction.

That choice to cut ties with the songbook sets this music apart from anything else that the Exploding Star Orchestra has done. While Mazurek surrounds himself with adept improvisers, the last two ESO records are mainly studio creations, assembled a track at a time, and even the group’s previous concert recordings realized suite-length compositions. By contrast, this performance is a one-off, unrepeatable mind meld.

The skyward trajectory of those earlier works informs the two long pieces that make up Spectral Fiction. First, Angelica Sanchez’s electric piano and, later, Chad Taylor and Ingebrigt Håker Flaten’s loping groove set up surfaces buoyant enough to keep the rest of the ensemble’s interactions aloft, so that even when the other players enact tangles that abandon melody and metric rhythm, the music has an arcing quality. Mazurek gives himself way more room than is usually the case in this band, playing long, winding solos that entwine with Sanchez’s keys and Tomeka Reid’s flinty cello lines. But while they make like benevolent chemtrails, it’s Damon Locks who makes you most aware of the air that envelops the players’ actions. His distorted exhortations and stuttering vocal samples sound like they’ve bounced off the satellites, setting them spinning, and burned off all excess during reentry. 

—Bill Meyer