Lightning Dreamers was recorded during the summer of 2021 at composer, cornetist, and visual artist Rob Mazurek’s home studio in Marfa, Texas. He assembled his streamlined Exploding Star Orchestra to play a festival in September. After rehearsals, the group, here an octet, developed and recorded this material; players include guitarist Jeff Parker, flutist Nicole Mitchell, lyricist/vocalist/sampler Damon Locks, Craig Taborn on Wurlitzer and Moog, Angelica Sanchez on Wurlitzer, piano, and synth, and Gerald Cleaver on drums.
Set opener and single “Future Shaman” emerges in a funky space, a first cousin to “Autumn Pleiades,” the final track on 2020’s brilliant Dimensional Stardust. São Paulo Underground percussionist Mauricio Takara assists on the cut as does Cathlene Pineda, whose synth bass governs the track’s core. The beat is chromatic underneath a wonderfully choppy yet elegant melody that’s built from funky vamps framing tonal and harmonic influences from both Bela Bartok and Frank Zappa. Locks adds spoken word, but it’s a distraction as layers of keyboards atop drums and percussion collide with Parker’s wonky, meaty guitar playing. The groove is constant, but everything around it is colored in strangeness. “Shape Shifter” weds electric jazz to prog rock à la Ian Carr’s Nucleus or later Soft Machine. The keyboardists engage in interlocking counterpoint framing Parker’s guitar, slippery drums, spoken vocal fragments, and Mazurek’s electronic embellishments in knotty, yet strangely assonant harmonies and rhythms. (While the leader plays cornet on the record, he mostly seems content to lead and conduct here.)
The album’s second side links two compositions: the 14-minute “Black River” and the six-minute “White River.” These works are inspired by two bodies of water that meet on the Rio Negro in Manaus, Brazil. Mazurek spent several years living in Brazil and traveling its various waterways. “Black River” is easily the most abstract work here. As it commences, angular piano, shouted chants, bleating cornet, Mitchell’s flute (wonderfully recalling the mysterious playing of Hermeto Pascoal), and electronics all cascade around one another. Locks intones in the backdrop, and layers of percussion refract and pulse. The spoken word and poetry make room for a slow-paced solo from Parker as an umbrella over an elaborate yet murky jam session that includes samples from the full band’s Paris performance in 2022 (which included inimitable trumpeter Jaimie Branch, who passed away shortly thereafter). Toward the end, Sanchez creates a thundering vamp that Mitchell soars over as Taborn adds ethereal synth and the percussionists weave beats around the pair. “White River,” by contrast, is dreamy, spacious, nearly psychedelic. Silvery fuzz guitar, Rhodes piano, and electronics float as melodic fragments emerge and dissipate in the margins. Though rhythms continue to unfold and entwine as tension builds and releases, the music retains its nomadic drift. Lightning Dreamers is among the more interior statements Mazurek has crafted with ESO. The alternating of beat-conscious, vamp-driven electric jazz, experimental electronic abstraction, and improvisation is focused, subtle, and creatively resonant. This band’s creativity is inexhaustible.