Exploding Star Orchestra We Are All from Somewhere Else

[Thrill Jockey; 2007]

Rating: 3.5/5

Styles: avant-garde jazz, New Music
Others: Tortoise, Chicago Underground Duo/Trio, Arthur Blythe, Julius Hemphill, Ken Vandermark

We Are All from Somewhere Else's booklet tells in verse a regeneration myth. A star explodes, sending light energy barreling through the cosmos. These wave particles enter the atmosphere of a planet (presumably earth) and strike water, which transforms the photons into “an elegant sting ray.” Human pollution quickly chokes the ray, but like its stellar point of origin, the animal cannot be destroyed once and for all. The sting ray’s ghost ascends into the sky, rockets beyond the stratosphere, bursts in outer space, and ultimately births a new star. Then the entire journey happens in reverse, leading us right back to where we started. Sure, the narrative’s a bit “Circle of Life,” but it leaves us with a great deal to unpack – psychedelic conversations with electric eels, modernity’s (in the form of a “human waste disaster machine”) intrusion into a ritualistic circuit, and, most relevant to the accompanying music, the idea of energy as the very stuff that drives and sustains creation.

If you haven’t gathered by now, I’ll go ahead and say it: We Are All from Somewhere Else is pretentious. Pretentious in a strict (rather than pejorative) sense. This is complicated music that weds itself to a complicated text. A three-movement piece composed by Chicago avant-garde musician Rob Mazurek (of Chicago Underground fame), We Are compresses a number of edgy jazz, electroacoustic, and pop forms into a modern classical frame. If you think the previous work of Mazurek and the Chicago post-rock crowd he runs with (many of whom – Jeb Bishop, Jeff Parker, John Herndon, John McEntire – are present here) is too hyper-referential, you’re likely to talk at this album’s expansive, assimilative scope. Unlike, say, Tortoise, however, Exploding Star Orchestra are less interested in pastiche for pastiche’s sake. The focus here is kinetic energy, the way a stringent rhythm can rupture into a cacophonous onslaught. So don’t be too quick to make judgments based on the parties involved – the musicians are playing with loosened collars and sweaty brows.

The first section, a four-parter titled “Sting Ray and the Beginning of Time,” successfully injects fiery playing into a structured, narrative compositional form. The movement seems to begin in medias res, with a flowery Nicole Mitchell flute lead careening over syncopated vibes, marimba, and drums. A series of different instruments – flugelhorn, trombone, cornet, electric guitar – take turns playing lead, and although the solos are often fierce, each musician behaves like a gentleman, never hogging the spotlight or tussling with other soloists. All this well-mannered free play reminds me of festive modern jazz sets like William Parker’s Sound Unity and Arthur Blythe’s Lenox Avenue Breakdown.

Part One ends with joyous convergence – everyone beats the hell out of his or her instrument in unison. The second section is simply a continuation of the first’s blustery finale. The scenery changes considerably for Part Three, subtitled “Psycho-Tropic Electric Eel Dream.” This section is a textural improvisation that centers around samples of electric eel pulses. Flute and synthesizer outline the wiggy electronic buzzes, making for some horrifically lysergic fun – despite the minimal palette, this piece is by no means a knock-kneed “lowercase” excursion. The final part offers clarity and more defined shapes. Cymbals and mallet instruments hang around the periphery in a light mist, and vibrant (albeit a bit too redolent of Steely Dan) guitar and Kenny Wheeler-ish flugelhorn carry the movement home. If I had to hazard a guess, this is the part of the story where the sting ray transforms into a beaming star.

The remainder of We Are seems to depart from the script – it’s certainly not a simple reversal of the first half, and the conclusion sounds by no means like “the death throes of a distant star.” The last track actually sounds like Tortoise gone big band, all meticulous mallet counterpoint and little else. Indeed, post-rock hijinks become more prevalent as the album unfolds. The second part of “Cosmic Tomes for Sleep Walking Lovers” is a repetitive, bass-driven figure featuring minimal guitar and reed accompaniment; it reminds me of Neu! without the pastoral yearning or the burbling tension. The segment that precedes this one, meanwhile, is a bit of a mess. The general idea – take a theme and screw around with its harmonic core – is A-OK, but the execution leaves much to be desired, with too many instruments and some distracting backward sound effects creating unnecessary clutter.

Still, this is an album worth sitting down with. I won’t knock Mazurek and Co. just because their reach sometimes exceeds their grasp. When I catch this happening, I instead think of how often the chances they take pays off. These cats could stiff-arm us with a gaggle of extended technique rabbit trails, waste tape deconstructing pop songs a la Brad Mehldau, or retrace their past successes. Instead they push onward and upward. The “somewhere elses” in which these musicians reside are very pure places.

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