Starlicker Double Demon

[Delmark; 2011]

Styles: modern creative, chamber improvisation
Others: Exploding Star Orcherstra, Chicago Underground, Sao Paulo Underground

Cornetist, improvising composer, and visual artist Rob Mazurek has made his presence felt on the Chicago scene for the past couple of decades, but it seems like the larger jazz and creative music world hasn’t got a complete hold on his work. It’s surprising, considering the breadth of his art — from orchestras to small groups of varying personnel, not to mention his membership in the brass ensembles of composer Bill Dixon (1925-2010).

Perhaps it has to do with the fact that his cross-pollinating approach isn’t as attractive to the supposedly boundary-critical improvising vanguard. Mazurek first came to notoriety for his work in the electric jazz soundscapes of Isotope 217 in the late 1990s, a group that was a peer to the Thrill Jockey stable (Tortoise, The Sea and Cake, etc.). Over the last decade-plus, his concerns have mostly been within the roiling, anthemic Exploding Star Orchestra and the Chicago Underground, his longstanding duo-plus with drummer Chad Taylor. It’d be a stretch to consider either of those groups as particularly “post-rock,” because they employ a healthy dose of free improvisation as well as rigorous compositional structure, electro-acoustic elements, and are open enough to challenge any efforts to pigeonhole.

An outgrowth of the quintet that appeared on 2010’s Sound Is (Delmark), Mazurek’s Starlicker is a spry trio with drummer John Herndon and vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz. Pared down through the absence of bassists Josh Abrams and Matt Lux, the group eschews electronic gauze to focus on incisiveness. The latter point is curious, because one consistent aspect of nearly all of his work has been the use of laptops, samplers, and sheen that gives otherwise spare music a colorful, hazy fabric. Dixon, one of Mazurek’s mentors, said in an interview with this writer in 2008 that “I don’t think vertically, but horizontally. For me, if I follow a line I’m playing, I would have to turn around and look at the horizon &mdash and what about the depth of the thing? I think of this as a cube-like thing, that if it were possible I could walk into the sound and play in it like that. It goes someplace and is a collection of something — why wouldn’t it have a width, height, while also having all the instruments on the same level?” That sculptural approach certainly applies to Mazurek’s work, although perhaps with a slightly more amorphous tendency.

What’s clear from the outset is that, even with such a small group and a certain range of instrumental colors available, Starlicker sound big. Absent electronics, an acoustically-defined sense of orchestration pervades the ensemble. The bottom is carried handily by Adasciewicz’ malleted chords as Herndon thrashes and ricochets with clipped and inverted backbeats, while Mazurek’s pursed and sinewy phrases clamber around a cracking, metallic field. While not a “jazz” drummer per se, Herndon is precise and vibrant, swinging with urgency underneath thick brassy impasto. With the ambience stripped away, Mazurek’s bright tone and phrase cascades are unavoidable on the title track, which reimagines the cutting-edge hardbop of Andrew Hill and Woody Shaw for the 21st century.

“Vodou Cinque” mates cymbal clatter and muted, thin lines with Adasciewicz’ glassine progressions toward a dusky march. A regular figure in numerous Chicago groups, the vibraphonist is a musician to watch — there hasn’t really been a significant vibesman to carry on the lineage of players like Bobby Hutcherson, Walt Dickerson, Khan Jamal, and Karl Berger within a younger milieu. The brilliant fullness of his phrases girds this music, grounding the frantic push on “Orange Blossom” with soft precision. Bowed vibraphone keys open the nine-minute “Triple Hex,” slowly feeding plaintive cornet calls. Sustained upturns and Herndon’s stone-skipping time emerge, massing distinct beats and commentary shot through with keening flurries.

Starlicker’s music does pose a challenge, and that is a striking similarity among the pieces and how they are played out. As Mazurek notes in the liners, “it’s about illuminating what’s already happening… everything’s working toward a sound.” It’s a different kind of sound than what previous groups have put forth — massive, but not in the way of a large ensemble. The music is also more direct than the Chicago Underground, yet somehow its sharpness is deflected by a broad group vision. It’s hard to think of such active music as being “ambient,” and even in its allover-ness, Starlicker don’t move like a cube or a cloud. As ever, the music of Rob Mazurek has numerous layers to confront, peel away, and embrace.

Links: Starlicker - Delmark

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