(Thrill Jockey Records, CD)
If space is the place where music goes to die, then Bill Dixon with Exploding Star Orchestra is a sonic supernova. Multimedia impresario Rob Mazurek — who made his bones leading the avant-garde Chicago Underground — once again conducts his ensemble (ESO) through a set of improvisational, freak-out jazz. Here he enlists legendary trumpeter Bill Dixon as his muse. Dixon organized the famed “October Revolution” in 1964 — four nights of innovative music in New York City that featured such nascent talents as John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. Dixon also founded Bennington College’s Black Music department, where he taught for nearly 30 years before retiring in 1996. Coincidentally, that’s the same year Trey Anastasio released Surrender to the Air, an ambitious foray — and my introduction — into the Byzantine world of free jazz.
As maestro, cornetist and self-described “abstractivist,” Mazurek is a generation younger than Dixon but is no less perverse — his photo is purposely blurred on the website. Luckily for listeners, the free-form medium affords such willfulness room to stretch. And stretch he does. “Entrances/One” opens with rim shots and thunderous timpani, as drummers John Herndon and Mike Reed rally the action around up-tempo grooves. Guitars riff urgently off each other, while layers of double bass and vibraphone rise in a cresting tide, only to drop out moments later, ejecting listeners into formless ether. It’s as if a solar wind hit the recording studio and spiked the boards.
There are startling moments in “Entrances/One” and “Two” when the brass behemoths trade jabs, trumpets screaming in an echoing maelstrom. Dixon attacks and Mazurek’s cornet sizzles like a hibachi. But with every promising wind-up comes stretches of flat water that suck the life out faster than a Jon Fishman vacuum solo. It’s maddening.
Nested conspicuously between these 18-minute sketches is Mazurek’s awkwardly titled “Constellations for Innerlight Projections.” Penned as a video score, it bears little relation to Dixon’s compositions. And with two minutes of needless exposition, the track whines like a nap-deprived child. “The notes are a reference,” explains Damon Locks (of The Eternals) in a laughable rap. Mercifully, his didactic spoken word is trampled under blistering horns, as the orchestra grows restless. Even within the context of free jazz, the schizophrenic “Constellations” overwhelms. And, clocking in at 24 minutes, it’s a bit much.
At its best, ESO show bursts of astute improv, such as Nicole Mitchell’s breathless flute and the segue between cosmic lullaby and swinging jam in “Constellations.” But like a collapsing star, nothing here is sustained for long. Sounds spin cohesively, then unravel into frenzied streaks of noise. Sun Ra would dig it, but absent any musical narrative, Exploding Star’s aural debris is for “abstractivists” only.