IN PERFORMANCE

An interplanetary journey with Rob Mazurek's Pulsar Quartet

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The Chicago cornetist Rob Mazurek has been producing unconventional, conceptually arresting work for years, most notably in his aptly named Exploding Star Orchestra.

Amid all of this, however, the music of his Pulsar Quartet stands out for a fragile lyricism cast against a swirl of ensemble sound. Somehow, this band can play at high decibel levels and produce galvanic rhythmic energy without overwhelming the sighs of Mazurek's horn.

Moreover, though the Pulsar Quartet can change direction, tempo and tone at the drop of a sixteenth note, its ideas flow easily and naturally, its members improvising as a single organism. No small feat, considering the complexity of this music.

All of this – and much more – was evident Friday night at the Green Mill Jazz Club, where Mazurek and the Pulsar Quartet celebrated the release of "Stellar Pulsations," an album that contains some of the most gripping small-group sounds of Mazurek's career.

The pulsing theme that launched "Primitive Jupiter" – which also opens the album – established the distinctive sonic vocabulary of this quartet. As Angelica Sanchez hammered chord clusters on piano and bassist Matthew Lux and drummer John Herndon hit equally hard, the clarion tone of Mazurek's cornet cut through the din.

At some moments, Mazurek's long-held notes soared above the near-chaos of improvisation unfolding around him. At others, Mazurek's themes were inseparable from the work of his colleagues, his themes woven inextricably into theirs.

But the surging power of "Primitive Jupiter" soon gave way to the extraordinary delicacy of "Magic Saturn." This composition/improvisation conveyed so much textural detail and subtlety of gesture that it might be considered a kind of jazz pointillism. Flecks of color, streaks of melody, bursts of harmony, splashes of dissonances emerged and disappeared in an instant, Mazurek's whispering lyricism on cornet giving this music its ever-shifting focal point.

In essence, during an extended set, the Pulsar Quartet retraced the course of the "Stellar Pulsations" album, from the quasi-orchestral tone painting of "Spiritual Mars" to the aggressive rhythms of "Spiral Mercury" to the hazy, nocturnal colorings of "Spanish Venus."

If the outer-space nomenclature recalled Gustav Holst's "The Planets," the comparison may be telling, even if Holst worked in another place (Britain), another time (the turn of the previous century) and another idiom (European classical music). Though "Stellar Pulsations" offers a more free-ranging, less programmatic sonic tour of our galaxy, it draws inspiration from the same infinite place.

Even apart from the fanciful titling, however, Mazurek's music enabled the Pulsar Quartet to create constantly changing layers of sound with remarkable transparency and copious musical invention. You didn't need the interplanetary guideposts to perceive the spatial depth of this music, nor its mystery, its seeming randomness, its indefinable beauty.

Though one wishes Mazurek had been more explicit in telling his audience the names of his compositions and the sequence in which they were played, it's not so difficult to understand why he didn't. This music developed with the force of nature, and it was not easily interrupted.

Rob Mazurek's Pulsar Quartet plays at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Green Mill Jazz Club, 4802 N. Broadway; $12; 773-878-5552 or greenmilljazz.com.

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich

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