Exploding Star Orchestra

We Are All From Somewhere Else

(Thrill Jockey; 2007)

By Joel Elliott | 22 January 2008

It's hard not to be a little underwhelmed by the final product of such immaculate conception: commissioned by the Chicago Cultural Center and the Jazz Institute to effectively summarize Chicago's contemporary avant-garde, cornetist Rob Mazurek hires 13 other prominent local jazz musicians and devises an elaborate science-fiction odyssey about a sting ray that undergoes a series of cosmic transformations to become a celestial body (or something like that). On hearing the opening track from the first suite, "Sting Ray and the Beginning of Time," with multiple percussion, guitars, trumpets, trombones, flutes and xylophones racing out of the gate, it's tempting to peg the group as a showcase for its individual talents. Even with John McEntire producing and other members of Tortoise contributing most of We Are All From Somewhere Else feels like a shout-out to older jazz mavericks: Sun Ra Arkestra, Charles Mingus, Mahavishnu Orchestra, or pretty much any "big band" that played after big bands stopped being the norm.

If this were the whole story, the album might be a little safer (if also more consistent), but the fact that ESO reach for something beyond the usual parameters of contemporary jazz (and I'm not talking about the conceptual basis for the album, which if anything is far more retrograde than the music) suggests, at the very least, that the band might have some future as a stable unit. For now, we get an ensemble of immensely talented musicians -- with Mazurek's fluttering cornet typically standing out -- cautiously dipping their toes into psychedelia and non-conventional instrumentation. Unfortunately, the major thrust in the latter direction -- the 3rd part of the opening suite, where the band plays over the sounds of actual electric eels -- never coalesces beyond novelty. Sticking out amidst the more conventional tracks surrounding it, the players freely add their own ambience to the static squeals of the eels, but the track itself doesn't develop or connect to the rest of the otherwise tightly-sequenced suite.

The sheer force of so many instruments tends to make for a crowded canvas and the subtle rhythmic layers one would usually expect from Tortoise often get lost in the sea of simultaneous free solo. However, the second suite, "Cosmic Tones for Sleep Walking Lovers," does find the band embracing a more restrained, ethereal atmosphere. "Part 2" of the suite provides the only evidence I can hear that ESO could reasonably be called a post-rock group: over a looped xylophone melody, the sax and trumpet play quick phrases as if in dialogue with each other, recalling the minimalist phrases of Steve Reich with enough groove to work in a jazz ensemble. The third part finally gives the two drummers some room to breathe, as the wind instruments play a simple, "So What"-inspired melody, with some glassy electronics (this would be the "cosmic" part of the suite) kicking in at the end. The final section of the suite ends the album in this mystical vein with tubular bells and flute taking forefront.

We Are All From Somewhere Else would probably be better without all its thematic pretension, but between its raucous opening and its feather-light celestial close the band move through some pretty evocative sounds. Given some more creative mixing and production, Exploding Star Orchestra might even earn their extraterrestrial associations.