Artist Feature

Rob Mazurek
By Ken Waxman

Death, loss and similar topics aren’t usually the subject of jazz performances. But several of Chicago-based cornetist Rob Mazurek’s most recent CDs have dealt with bereavement to some extent. Return the Tides, for instance, recorded with Black Cube SP (BCSP) is what he describes as a “cathartic modern psychedelic spiritual” honoring his mother Kathleen who died in 2013. Similarly Mother Ode recorded on what would have been his mother’s 72nd birthday, uses cornet, bells, implements, incantation and noise to celebrate her lasting influence on Mazurek’s art. Meantime Alternate Moon Cycles is a salute by Mazurek plus an electric trio to one of his mentors, trumpeter Bill Dixon.

“I hear all of this music as celebrations of life forces that were beyond what’s considered normal,” explains Mazurek, 49, “With the projection of the sound from these works I feel a new vitality that I never felt before. Almost as if their departure to another realm has sent me a positive energy vortex that has given me new life to pursue and realize sound worlds un-imaginable. I also continue my research into ways of finding different and interesting ways to organize sound and matter in order to break through to some kind of understanding of why and how we’re all here and where in the world we might be going.”

In short, the cornetist/composer hears “celebration” rather than “sadness” in these discs, and it’s this sort of celebrations he aims to communicate with his many different touring units, two of which – BCSP and São Paulo Underground (SPU) – play NYC this month as part of an extensive US tour. The tour is special, he explains, because it allows “master musicians from São Paulo to travel to the US and be seen by American audiences”. Ten years old, SPU is made up of Mazurek, Mauricio Takara on drums, (ukulele-like) cavaquinho and electronics plus Guilherme Granado on keyboards, synthesizer and sampler. BCSP adds Thomas Rohrer who plays rabeca (Brazilian viola). Including Rohrer, who is Swiss, the musicians all live in Brazil, and began an affiliation with Mazurek during his stay in that country from 2000 and 2008. Still these South American sounds merely added more inspirations to the novel improvised music Mazurek was forging, growing up as party of Chicago’s shifting musical gestalt during the ‘80s and ‘90s.

After studying cornet in school, Mazurek seriously decided to become a jazz musician after seeing Sun Ra at the 1981 Chicago Jazz Festival. “The show completely blew my mind apart and after the fireworks had ended I silently thought to myself ‘this is what I want to do’,” he recalls. Initially studying and then playing mainstream jazz, hanging out with other players changed his concepts after being introduced to sounds from, among many others: Xenakis, Dockstader, Ussachevsky, Gil Melle's Andromeda Strain soundtrack, Cage, Autechre and Mouse on Mars. “I started searching for different ways to organize and de-organize sound. I became obsessed with the idea of sound as a way to understand the life given and taken away from us, a kind of projection that could have the potential of opening up hidden areas of the psych or non-psych to find reasons or non-reasons to the question of being and non-being,” he states.

Mazurek and drummer Chad Taylor, who now lives in Brooklyn, also organized various editions of the Chicago Underground (CU) group with other players around that time; CU will celebrate its 20th anniversary next year. As a duo, Taylor and Mazurek recently toured Europe after releasing Locus, CU’s seventh CD. “We`re constantly shifting and experimenting with different sound worlds while building on a vocabulary that’s distinctively our own,” notes Mazurek.

Later on Mazurek gathered many of his associates into the Exploding Star Orchestra that celebrates its 10th anniversary with a double CD, triple-LP set next month. Galactic Parables Volume 1 features Nicole Mitchell, Matt Bauder, Jeff Parker, Taylor, John Herndon and Angelica Sanchez. There’s also his Pulsar Quartet with Sanchez, a duo with Parker and many other small groups. “I like this idea of long term evolution: everybody playing with each other in various configurations over time to create a vocabulary, a way, a sound,” he affirms. And that why the Exploding Star Orchestra for instance, now includes players from the Sao Paulo Underground, Chicago Underground, Pulsar Quartet, Black Cube SP and the Parker/Mazurek Duo. “All these groups are my main group,” he jokes.

Mazurek’s Brazilian sojourn added new idea to his already developing concept. Living in Manaus, he explored various regions of the Amazon plus collected the sounds of electric eels, storm systems, animals, insects etc. Later in São Paulo he came into contact with the musicians with whom he would form SPU and the band’s first CD, Sauna: Um, Dois, Tres came out in 2005. “That CD is São Paulo to the core,” he declares. Later “we released Tres Cabeças Loucuras (2011) and Beija Flors Velho e Sujo (2013) as a strange tribute to Ol’ Dirty Bastard. Trying to push the boundaries of cracked boom box, massive car stereo blowout sound you would hear daily in the city. Of course our love for Jobim and Gal Costa, etc. is always there, but we were and still are looking for something different.” He adds: “The music of Brazil is so incredibly diverse. You’re not going to hear Bossa Nova in Manaus. You will hear and dance all night to Forro music through giant busted speakers. In São Paulo you are going to hear Racionais MCs, Tulipa, MTakara and Bodes Elefantes.”

Mazurek is also a visual artist involved with painting, print-making and video works. He does this, he says, “in order to open up other parts of the mind and experience.” A series of 3-D lithographs he created at France’s URDLA Center of International Printmaking are being used as visual scores for meditation; recently he also played a solo concert at the Rothko Chapel using four of his paintings as a visual score. Explaining how being involved in different arts can affect his music, he exhorts: “practice what you don't know in order to find something else. Any strategy to open the mind to experience something different must lead to a greater awareness and a new pallet of wonder and magic.”

Attempting to expand this magic still further, his long-term plans includes composing The Book of Sound, a seven-part opera dealing with “interaction of human and technology and future possibilities of travel and communication based on new and un-discovered technologies concerning biotechnology and mind experiments.” As for the CDs honoring his mother, Mazurek says: “She was and still is my hero. Her energy stays with me every day as I strive to make something that could have the possibility to project the love and kindness and strength and magic that my mother exemplified.”

This strength and magic is multi-faceted adds the cornetist, stating that “For me change is the ultimate high.” He also describes his vocation simply and positively: “This is what to do in life. Make music and share it with various beings in the world in the most honest way possible, and with no other motives than the sound itself. “

Recommended Listening:

• Exploding Star Orchestra Galactic Parables Volume 1 (Cuneiform 2015)

• Black Cube SP Return the Tides (Cuneiform 2014)

• Rob Mazurek Mother Ode (Corbett vs., Dempsey 2014)

• Rob Mazurek Exploding Star Orchestra Matter Anti Matter (RogueArt 2013)

• Chicago Underground Duo Locus, (Northern Spy 2014 )

• Bill Dixon with Exploding Star Orchestra Eponymous (thrill Jockey 2008)

• São Paulo Underground Sauna: Um, Dois, Tres (Cuneiform 2006)

—For The New York City Jazz Record April 2015