In 2019—a few years after relocating to Marfa from Chicago—the now 55-year-old trumpeter, composer, and visual artist Rob Mazurek found himself performing in one of the most surreal venues of his life: at the bottom of the Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend National Park. Barefoot in the mud at low tide, he started to play, imagining “a scenario of projecting sonic energy on the border line … improvising on this feeling,” he recounts over Zoom from his music studio in Marfa, where he’s bundled in a black Garza Marfa hoodie. The experience spurred him to consider how the U.S.-Mexico border—the site of so much human suffering and political turmoil—is ultimately a construct.
“Being barefoot in the center of that, you feel that there is no border,” he says. “You can construct something, but in that area, you stand in this thing, it’s not a border, it’s … nothing. It’s a powerful feeling.” There was no audience that day, but he aims to restage that moment for an upcoming video as part of a new project, Book of Sound, an upcoming multimedia piece in conjunction with Ballroom Marfa.
Mazurek, who was born in Jersey City in 1966, moved with his family to a suburb of Chicago when he was ten years old and started taking cornet lessons. A few years later, as an impressionable sixteen-year-old, he caught a performance by legendary Afrofuturist jazz composer Sun Ra and his Arkestra that drastically affected his life’s trajectory. He left the cornet aside, picked up the trumpet, and dedicated himself to jazz.
Since the late nineties, Mazurek has been one of jazz’s most prolific players and a creative force in Chicago. He’s added sunbursts of trumpet to albums by Stereolab, Calexico, Jim O’Rourke, Yo La Tengo, Sam Prekop, and Tortoise, among others, in addition to being a bandleader for duos, trios, and orchestras, from Chicago Underground Duo to Isotope 217 to Exploding Star Orchestra. In that time, he’s released nearly 40 albums and appeared on nearly 150 others. “What initially struck me about Rob was his tone,” his longtime collaborator and friend Jeff Parker, a guitarist, told me recently. “He has a warm, big, beautiful trumpet sound. He modeled himself after Miles Davis, Art Farmer, Chet Baker, these lyrical and beautiful trumpet players.”
In Marfa, Mazurek has remained just as prolific. Dimensional Stardust—a swirling cosmic jazz album that sounds beamed down from a satellite, full of spoken-word musings about our place in the galaxy—was released late last year and received rave reviews from the New York Times, DownBeat, and Pitchfork. In late January he unveiled Instant Opaque Evening, from his international trio the Underflow, featuring Swedish saxophonist Mats Gustafsson and New York–based guitarist David Grubbs. The double album careens from noisy outbursts to hushed musings, as prickly as a ride through huisache in cutoffs. Closer to home, he’s been staging his summer Desert Encrypts music festival in Marfa, though current circumstances might mean a virtual version of the fest in 2021 (2020 was canceled). Mazurek also has a burgeoning visual art practice, where he gleefully works with everything from neon to repurposed cinder blocks to create densely layered paintings and abstract video pieces that crackle with energy; he’s exhibited them stateside and abroad.
Several years ago, Mazurek was one signature away from a mortgage that would cement the rest of his days in the chilly Chicago suburbs. “My wife Britt and I were on the cusp of buying a house before we found out it had serious structural damage,” he says. The astronomical cost made them walk away from the deal. At the time, the two decided to take a road trip to Marfa, where Mazurek had performed more than a decade ago. “Britt hadn’t seen it,” Mazurek explains. “After one day, she was like, ‘Can we live here?’”
The couple has called the small town home since 2014, and have reveled in the space and freedom of the West Texas landscape. In Marfa, Mazurek has a music studio replete with a piano, church organ, and stack of modular synth components, as well as a visual art studio separate from the house where he spends most of his days painting. With that much more space, his visual practice has also expanded, from record-size pieces to canvases whose top he can barely reach.
“The art community in Marfa is full of talented folks in all mediums,” Mazurek says. Even as an out-of-towner, he immediately found the town “very welcoming and also respectful. Individuality seems to be the essence of life here.” After life in an international hub like Chicago, it took some time for Mazurek to find his feet musically: “I feel isolated here in terms of the music that I’m making, but not in a bad way.” He doesn’t have the same jazz network in Marfa, but he is enthusiastic about local artists including violist Jeanann Dara, singer-songwriter Ross Cashiola, and duo Primo y Beebe.
Marfa’s vibrant visual art community, anchored by the presence of the Chinati Foundation and Donald Judd’s compound and permanent installations, drew in Mazurek and Britt. Mazurek has been known to occasionally take his horn to Judd’s one hundred aluminum boxes and play. “The reverberation was incredible bouncing off all the boxes,” he says. “Every square inch of these boxes breathe. You can stand there for hours in one spot and it’s basically a light show.” The way Judd put together his work also informed how Mazurek conceptualized music for Exploding Star Orchestra, he explains. “It’s about stacking, density, simplicity,” he adds. “I think of his stacks as chords.” Before moving to Marfa, Mazurek was familiar with Judd’s work, but “I didn’t know how incredible it all was,” he says. “I was in heaven.”
Heaven is an apt descriptor for Mazurek to use, given that he has named some of his groups Starlicker, Pulsar Quartet, and Exploding Star Orchestra. “My work from the start has been an investigation into my own personal connection with the spirituality and physicality of space and time,” he says, adding that he’s particularly moved by the night sky. “Last night was a full moon and I thought there was snow on the ground. I just went to stand out there for an hour. You can see the space station moving across the sky, satellites, shooting stars, all that. It’s like being on another planet. It’s very inspiring to me.”
The vitality of West Texas’s cultural scene—ranging from the Agave Festival to the star parties at McDonald Observatory—informed Dimensional Stardust. It’s dense and swirling one moment, spacious as a constellation the next. Making the album involved a daily routine to find the “morning drone” from his modular synth set-up, where he’d noodle around until he found a compelling sound, make a sketch based on that sound, then take that drawing out to his studio and work on a larger canvas. After he’d committed the sound to a painting, he’d make a composition inspired by that visual work. “By four to five p.m., then I’ll record it in order to build into a composition,” he explains. “A little dinner, then it’s a free-for-all. Am I painting? Sound stuff?” Over the course of three years, the album came together. “It’s based on cosmology and astronomy, so just being able to step out and see the Milky Way every night was a big inspiration,” he says.
When it came time to record Stardust, Mazurek tapped into his extensive Chicago network. Not able to record spontaneously because of scheduling snafus, he instead wrote all the parts and charts for all ten of the album’s compositions. He then brought in instruments two at a time—some thirteen in all—from vibraphone to violin to his own Moog synthesizer. Players ranged from his longtime collaborators, including Jeff Parker, to newcomers including the cellist Tomeka Reid. “[Mazurek’s] music is like a kaleidoscope, things weaving in and out, with him shaping and changing, and he brings in different elements and colors,” Reid says from her home in Chicago. “A lot of Rob’s other music is very high energy, and everyone just goes “BLLEEEAAAAAAH!” Parker says with a chuckle, adding that the new album bears a newfound sense of lightness and subtlety.
“It’s a really different energy than being in Chicago,” Mazurek says. While he’s spent seven years in the West Texas desert, Mazurek’s a reformed city slicker still getting the hang of being here. “For me, I really feel that energy and that connection, you really feel that in the desert of Marfa,” he says. “You just start to think in a different way.”