Sunday, April 08, 2007

Exploding Star Orchestra - 07/04/2007@Kunstcentrum BELGIE, Hasselt

Rob Mazurek - cnt (myspace)
Nicole Mitchell - fl, piccolo
Ken Vandermark - bs, bcl
Matt Bauder - ts, bcl
Jeb Bishop - tb (blog)
Corey Wilkes - tp, flh
Josh Berman - cnt
Jim Baker - p
Jason Adasiewicz - vib
Jason Ajemian - b
John Herndon - d
Mike Reed - d

My recent concert-going had been rather unadventurous, but this concert rectified the balance all by itself. The line-up was pretty amazing, which explains why its European tour included only two stops, I guess, this one and the Parisian Balieues Bleues festival.

The concert started before the audience was aware of it: Rob Mazurek's laptop had been generating soundscapes for over an hour when the crowd were allowed into the room. Then, a pre-recorded French text played, mentioning something about "the rendez-vous of electric eels" and ending with "a new life of galaxies," which triggered an appropriate Big Bang of loud collective improvisation. What about the eels, you wonder? Well, Mazurek explained to me later that the electronic tearing sounds and drones we had heard at times were field recordings of Amazonian electric eel discharges (Mazurek's Brazilian wife is a biologist).

If the abrupt replacement of the chaos with a powerul double-drum groove and funky 6/4 baritone saxophone riff was somewhat predictable, little else afterwards was. The music fit into the tradition of mid-size ensembles - Mingus's The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady and Don Cherry's Symphony For Improvisors are possible reference points (especially given Nicole Mitchell's use of piccolo) - that make creative use of the composition/improvisation dialectic in all of its possible permutations of instrumental combinations and uses, direction and non-direction, etc. Mazurek also drew upon Sun Ra, which explain the pan-stylistic voraciousness and titles such as "Cosmic Tones For Sleepwalking Lovers."

Whether it was Corey Wilkes riding a full-band groove, Ken Vandermark duetting with John Herndon or multiple soloists going at it at once, almost everything during the long, multi-movement "Stingray And The Beginning Of Time" was big, powerful and aggressive. Up until the last section, that is, when things slowed down to mid-tempo "swing," allowing for Jason Adasiewicz's spacey, spastic vibraphone to come through and Mitchell to develop a sweet line, which was particularly bizarre in this context, in a good way.

While the aforementioned groove seemed to recur regularly throughout the concert in various guises, the stylistic palette was very broad, but also carefully integrated. So, a furious, stop-and-go theme that opened up to collective improv could naturally be followed by a happy, Brotherhood of Breath-ish riff. Mazurek-directed bursts of improvisation easily gathered into clean Booker Little/Grachan Moncur-style avant-bop, allowing Matt Bauder to spin slippery lines and Josh Berman to burst into agitated expletives. Jim Baker provided perhaps the loveliest moment, with a solo piano piece entitled "Black Sun," during which his touch remained cristalline, whether he was playing vicious flurries or arpeggio-driven rhapsodising.

I bought the album, We Are All From Somewhere Else, along with Matt Bauder's Memorize The Sky and Jason Ajemian's large ensemble Who Cares How Long You Sink's Folk Forms Evaporate Big Sky (Chicago seems fixated on celestial themes right now) for an amazingly affordable 10 euros each. The Exploding Star Orchestra album seems okay, even if some of the power and lively messiness is missing. What I've heard of Memorize The Sky, however, is radically different: it's sound installation-y, one-slowly-developing-or-static-process-per-track. Ajemian's record kind of sounds like a collection of slow-moving orchestral preludes, very soothing, even when it gets raucous.