Tortoise alum Rob Mazurek has a big concept behind his latest project. As we all know, sometimes big concepts pay off, sometimes they simply lead to big letdowns. Exploding Star Orchestra's We Are All From Somewhere Else is a big concept that luckily actually pays off – and you can luckily just ignore the bizarre concept behind it and just enjoy the stunning music the ensemble pulls off.
The concept, if you must know, goes something like this: somewhere in deep space, a star explodes and a sting ray experiences many things including dealing with destructive human beings and talkative electric eels until, ultimately, the eel dies and becomes a star itself. See, weren't you better off not knowing at all? Like I said, just ignore it and listen.
The problem comes when I begin trying to classify what's going on here – like Mazurek's other bands (Tortoise, Chicago Underground, Sao Paolo Underground, among others), they simply defy real definitions. Oh, it's jazz alright, but it's impossible to pin down – it's free, it's avant garde, it's bop, it's contemporary. And, yes, there's a bit of Tortoise hiding in there – it's hard for the band not to show through when quite a number of the band's members are actually taking part in this project (Mazurek, Jeff Parker, John McEntire, and John Herndon).
Parts of the album, such as much of the first section, entitled "Sting Ray And The Beginning Of Time," have a spy-thriller feel about them, where a driving vamp gives the soloists a fertile bed over which to create thick, intricate pieces. Some segments, like "Part 2" of "Cosmic Tomes For Sleep Walking Lovers," approach minimalist territory. Portions of the musicians work alternately with and against each other, the textures drifting one way or another as soloists break out to push the piece in a new direction. All too quickly it's over, leaving the listener wishing Mazurek had developed a far longer piece dedicated to exploring what a jazz group could do in this setting. It's an exciting listen that's only disappointing in its brevity.
The real thrill, however, is that the two long segments that make up the majority of the album simply let the soloists take their turns leading the band. The strongest presence is that of Nicole Mitchell's flute, which leads the music in high-speed twists and turns. Also taking a intriguing solos here is guitarist Jeff Parker, who might surprise those who only know him from his Tortoise stint – and even his solo jazz albums, where his laid back tone hides the aggressive stance he takes here. You could be forgiven thinking that Nels Cline had taken over at times.
Most of all, it's a refreshing listen – it's big, it's brash, and it's bold, but it's also just plain fun. Sometimes music simply takes itself too seriously, and this is one release that has rarely resulted in anything but a smile on my face.