When Chicago cornetist-bandleader Rob Mazurek launched his Exploding Star Orchestra in Millennium Park in 2005, few would have predicted that it would become the centerpiece of his musical life.
True, this was a strong debut, Mazurek leading fellow experimenters such as flutist Nicole Mitchell and guitarist Jeff Parker in music of considerable originality and sonic beauty, its gauzy layers of electronic and acoustic sound as sensuous as anything in large-ensemble jazz of the past decade or so. But these scores proved so intricate and delicate, and the personnel in such high demand in various contexts, that the concert felt like an unforgettable, one-night-only phenomenon.
The Exploding Star Orchestra's breakthrough performance was just the beginning, though, Mazurek subsequently leading various incarnations of the band in similarly evocative, provocative sets at the Green Mill Jazz Club and elsewhere. Along the way, recordings such as "We Are All from Somewhere Else" (2007), "Bill Dixon with Exploding Star Orchestra" (2008) and "Stars Have Shapes" (2010) documented Mazurek's ongoing explorations into shimmering, translucent orchestral sound.
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That journey is about to take another step forward, with the release of the album "Matter Anti-Matter" (on the Rogue Art label) and a concert to celebrate the occasion 6:30 p.m. Friday at the Chicago Cultural Center. Both the recording and the performance include Mazurek's epic suite for the Exploding Star Orchestra, "63 Moons of Jupiter," while the concert also will present the American premiere of his "Galactic Parables."
Like another Chicago experimenter of much earlier vintage, Sun Ra, Mazurek clearly believes that "space is the place." But in Mazurek's case, "space" refers not only to contemplation of the galaxies but to the amount of expressive room he seeks to give each of his collaborators.
"I created Exploding Star Orchestra as a vehicle to project a oneness with like-minded artists from different genres and various points of views," writes Mazurek in an email, amid concertizing in Europe.
The goal, adds Mazurek, was to "create a vocabulary of ideas and strategies" to "crack the (galactic) ceiling of what might be possible in the realm of imaginary life-affirming sonic awareness happenings."
If all that sounds a bit high-flown, it certainly serves as an apt metaphor for this mystical music, with its emphasis on lush orchestral colors and passages of muted but soaring lyricism from Mazurek's cornet. You don't have to know a great deal about Mazurek's fascination with the cosmos to perceive the contemplative, spiritual, transcendent nature of Mazurek's concept and his colleagues' improvisations for this band.
For Friday's concert, Mazurek will share the stage with longtime collaborators, including Mitchell, Parker, drummer John Herndon and vocalist Damon Locks. With Matt Bauder on reeds, Angelica Sanchez on piano and bass guitarist Matthew Lux, this edition of the Exploding Star Orchestra clearly holds ample possibilities, these musicians adept at improvising on Mazurek's motifs.
"This group is not about getting work or having fun with friends," says Mazurek. "It's about the seriousness of our condition on this planet and the magic of discovering the unknown, and how to radically transform a thing through the joys and sorrows of sound and feeling."
Having embarked upon this journey, Mazurek says he's working toward creating a multimedia opera called "The Book of Sound" with the goal of "presenting sound to heal and ignite concerns about the nature of our dilemmas on this planet in relation to cosmic truths that might exist."
Surely the healing aspect of this music is hard to miss, the orchestral work never accosting the ear but, rather, addressing it warmly, the luster of the ensemble passages augmented with the hum and drone of computer-generated sound.
Mazurek, who for years was based in Brazil and tours the world regularly with groups such as his Pulsar Quartet and Sao Paulo Underground, considers the Exploding Star Orchestra "the mother ship of expression" for him, and it shows in the breadth and ambition of the large-scale compositions he has conceived for it. He say the ensemble is "in a constant state of becoming, based on the ideas of what is composed and the needs of the compositions in question."
Ultimately, though neither Mazurek's words – nor anyone else's – precisely capture the ebb and flow of this music, its mixture of high-tech and acoustic sounds, its delicate and ever-shifting balance between composition and improvisation.
You really have to hear it.
Also worth hearing:
Illiana Jazz Club: The venerable organization celebrates its 40th anniversary with a rotating lineup of traditional jazz groups, featuring Andy Schumm and his Flatland Gang, Petra's Recession Seven, Alfonso Ponticelli's Swing Gitan and Wally's Warehouse Waifs; 7 p.m. to midnight Friday; 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. to midnight Saturday; and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday; Willowbrook Inn, 7800 Kingery Highway, Willowbrook; $30-$35 for each session, $120 for all sessions; 630-325-6400 or illianajazz.com
Chevere de Chicago: Is there another large band that brings this much muscle, energy and bebop syntax to the Latin-jazz vocabulary? Certainly none that features the likes of pianist-harmonica virtuoso Howard Levy, saxophonist Steve Eisen and percussionists Alejo Poveda, Ruben Alvarez and Joe Rendon. 9 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday, Green Mill Jazz Club, 4802 N. Broadway; $15; 773-878-5552 or greenmilljazz.com
Russell Malone: The former young lion of the 1980s and '90s has shown his durability, swinging freely in a variety of jazz languages. He'll lead a quartet. 8 and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday; Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Ct. $20-$40; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com
Paul Marinaro: A singer of great accomplishment and greater potential, Marinaro this year caught listeners off-guard with the release of his belated recording debut, "Without a Song." This one-of-a-kind release, which juxtaposes Marinaro's plush vocals with historic recordings of his father, quickly established him as a leading Chicago musician and an ascending national name. It also has made him something close to a regular at the Green Mill Jazz Club, where Marinaro has been appearing with increasing frequency. He'll return for the cocktail hour show. 5 to 8 p.m. Friday, Green Mill Jazz Club, 4802 N. Broadway; no cover; 773-878-5552 or greenmilljazz.com
Tim Berne: Alto saxophonist Berne's Snakeoil ensemble, titled for his recording of the same name, features clarinetist Oscar Noriega, pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer Ches Smith, in a rare Chicago appearance. 9:30 p.m. Saturday, Constellation, 3111 N. Western Ave.; $12-$15; constellation-chicago.com
Chicago Cabaret Professionals: The organization's 15th annual gala might be considered the Oscars of Chicago cabaret, with various figures picking up awards and others serenading listeners for hours. This year's event, "Singing Our Own Song," will salute Chicago singer Daryl Nitz and Davenport's, the city's jewel-like cabaret. Performers will include Anne and Mark Burnell, Joan Curto, David Edelfelt, Hilary Feldman, Laura Freeman, Carla Gordon, KT McCammond, Beckie Menzie, Tom Michael, Bob Moreen, Audrey Morris, Marianne Murphy Orland, Suzanne Petri and Denise Tomasello. Doors open at 5:45 p.m.; cocktail show from 6:15 to 7 p.m.; main stage show at 7 p.m.; Park West, 322 W. Armitage Ave.; 800-514-3849 or 312-409-3106 or chicagocabaret.org
Rob Mazurek's Exploding Star Orchestra
When: 6:30 p.m. Friday
Where: Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St.
Tickets: free; 312-744-6630 or chicagoculturalcenter.org