Rob Mazurek is a polymath who performs, composes, improvises, writes poetry, and paints. Here, he brings back his long-running Exploding Star Orchestra with a new lineup for its second release on International Anthem.
Active since 2005, the group now consists of Mazurek on trumpet, voice, launeddas, and electronics, Jeff Parker on guitar, Craig Taborn on Wurlitzer and Moog, Angelica Sanchez on Wurlitzer, piano, and Moog, Damon Locks on voice and electronics, Gerald Cleaver on drums, Mauricio Takara on percussion, and Nicole Mitchell on flute and voice. That is quite a rogues gallery of modern creative music.
Future Shaman kicks off the album with a steady drum beat and a funky keyboard riff. But the first couple of minutes of this track are not representative of the album as a whole, or even the rest of the track. Though it is arguably the most conventional piece on Lightning Dreamers, it features an angular outside solo from Parker around the halfway mark and then a similarly exploratory turn from either Taborn or Sanchez followed by Mazurek on trumpet.
Thus, while its catchy nature makes Future Shaman a suitable toe-tapping lead, the following tracks move in a less structured and more heady direction. To that point, Dream Sleeper incorporates something akin to free improv or at least organized chaos. The group invokes a Sun Ra vibe which remains for most of the rest of the album, varying between densely-packed and spacious (and spacey) passages.
Locks’ vocals are sparse and unobtrusive. His contributions harken to his recent efforts leading the Black Monument Ensemble. Mazurek’s prior work can also be heard. Shape Shifter exhibits a lead melody reminiscent of Mazurek’s Sao Paulo Underground and his Return the Tides album.
At 14 minutes, Black River is the longest track and also the most open-ended. Locks provides spoken-word poetry which evolves into a slow-paced solo from Parker over an elaborate jam session from the remaining members. Toward the end, Sanchez and Mitchell combine in a compelling piano riff / flute solo supported by Taborn and the percussionists.
Lightning Dreamers manages to cleave a path between fresh and retro sounds, composition and improvisation, complexity and groove. It is a trippy yet brainy release that is an easy album of the year candidate.