Exploding Star Orchestra: Rob Mazurek’s Freeform Jazz Ensemble

Rob Mazurek is a man of accomplishments. He is regarded as a master cornetist and conductor working in avant-garde, free-jazz styles. He has fronted numerous projects in his adopted hometown of Chicago. His collaborations have been with contemporaries and peers, but now Mazurek is working with a legend. Free-jazz icon Bill Dixon contributes as conductor for the latest release of Mazurek’s cosmic jazz ensemble, Exploding Star Orchestra.

The album, Bill Dixon with Exploding Star Orchestra (Thrill Jockey), begins with “Entrances,” a Dixon piece. There are two distinct versions of “Entrances” on the record, which Dixon arranged through spontaneous conduction. Mazurek’s creation, “Constellations for Innerlight Projections (for Bill Dixon),” separates the two pieces. It was originally written as a video score, given to seven of the Orchestra’s members on laptops. The other artists responded at will to the conduction and direction, creating a fantastic, unique piece.

The opening monologue in “Constellations” is Mazurek’s manifesto of sorts, beginning, “When you push from the center, you create your own universe.” Damon Locks of The Eternals lends his voice for the narrative, continuing, “You play the notes. The notes are a reference. This is your constellation. You can make it anything you want.” All three of the pieces are filled with chaos and wonder, or as Mazurek describes it, “spontaneous, precise composition.”

The pieces were originally played for the Chicago Jazz festival and recorded almost completely acoustic, without any post-production. Describing the new record, Mazurek says, “It was the first attempt at a video score rather than composed music, although there is some composed music. It was quite a battle to play the ideas that were fairly abstract in my head. Bill’s music was unique to the group, as it is the first time we were directed by an outside source. And what better outside source is there than the great Bill Dixon?”

When free jazz hit New York City in the 1960s, there was great debate about it. Could it be considered music? Was it all randomness and spontaneity, or a real advance in the culture of music? It was radically different and unique. Dixon is a seminal figure of that movement. The trumpeter, pianist, and flugelhorn player has spent a lifetime exploring new and uncharted territories of music and sound.

Dixon organized the October Revolution in Jazz in 1964, and soon after co-founded the Jazz Composers Guild. After retiring from teaching at Bennington College in Vermont, he continued working and advancing the movement. His profession as a teacher and his unwillingness to compromise his artistic value led to relative obscurity among contemporaries like Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane. Dixon’s musical output may be small comparatively, but he is so respected and influential that many look to him as a pioneer and leader in free jazz.

Mazurek grew up around Chicago, rooted in the hard bop jazz of the town. The cornetist began conducting and organizing projects in the 1990s, developing into a cherished improviser. His most recent project began as an invitation by the Chicago Cultural Center and the Jazz Institute, who approached Mazurek about putting together an avant-garde jazz ensemble for a Chicago concert. The celestial entity that formed was Exploding Star Orchestra, a group of over a dozen musicians that first released We Are All from Somewhere Else (Thrill Jockey) in 2007.

That same year, Mazurek met Dixon at the Guelph International Jazz festival and soon discussed collaborating. “He attended my Sao Paulo Underground concert and was excited about the sound we were making,” says Mazurek. This led to discussions of collaboration. “I secured a spot at the Chicago Jazz festival, which made it financially possible to go ahead with the idea. Bill composed a piece and I composed a piece for this. It was quite magical.”

Mazurek is like a boy meeting his hero. He talks of Dixon with revere and awe. For him, Dixon is a living legend, above mere mortals. His trumpet is a thing of beauty, full of voice and character. Dixon is one the most lyrical musicians in the free jazz movement. His sound comes deep from within, reaching out like fingers in the dark, exploring areas that few have dared.

Mazurek calls Dixon “a true artist, who never sacrificed integrity for a lower form of artistry. I know of his music and writings and art. I will say that every time I hear even one note from Bill, it is a lesson in sound and life.”

As for Mazurek, his music is alive. It grows and exists purely on its own terms. It fills him and drives him further every day. Mazurek defies categorization simply by ignoring it. His music is essential to his way of life, and that comes through especially strong on “Constellations.” “[I find] my own abstract melodic ideas,” he says. “[They are] my own way of building chord and sound structures that don’t necessarily correspond with the so-called correct way of doing things.”

The true value of the music, for Mazurek, is the truth and candor that music creates. Mazurek seeks structures and ideas that let performers interpret sounds in their own unique way, with as much freedom as possible within the given framework. “I like to create pieces that project life, and perhaps push the boundaries a bit to find something else,” says Mazurek. “Risk plays a large part, but perhaps a rehearsed and exacting risk is more the point.”

Mazurek’s next risk? “I want to form the Exploding Star International, and have musicians from all over the world participate.