Free improvisation remains one of the most potent forces behind Chicago’s creative music scene, but since the demise of the Monday-night sessions at Myopic Books last year there haven’t been many opportunities to hear it in its pure form. In most cases free improv is for the players, not the fans: musicians navigate theoretically uncharted waters and try to make the journey as one, or at least with a sense of cooperation, and when they fail it can be ugly. But its logic and inventive spirit can be heard in Chicago’s most adventurous musicians. In the late 90s, cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm hit on a way to make improv more fun for everybody involved. His Lightbox Orchestra project–loosely related to experiments in controlled improv like John Zorn’s “Cobra” and Butch Morris’s conductions but more egalitarian in nature–has at one time or another included most of Chicago’s important improvisers, usually 8 to 12 at a go. Using colored Christmas bulbs, Lonberg-Holm signals when each player should be active and when he should be silent. Then, over the course of the allotted time, he’ll hold up posters scrawled with cues ranging from terms like “ostinato,” “softer,” and “pulse” to abstract drawings meant to be interpreted by the players. He might command someone to remember a particular passage he or someone else has played, then call upon him to repeat it later. It’s fun to watch, but as the new First Contact! (Locust Music), which collects four performances from 1998 and 1999, makes plain, it also makes for good listening–the music flows with a certain logic as a result of Lonberg-Holm’s guidance, moving from abstract to melodic or calm to chaotic. Lonberg-Holm doesn’t assemble the Orchestra very often these days, which alone makes this show notable; for this record-release party he’s enlisted nearly every player on the CD who still lives in town, including Guillermo Gregorio, Kevin Drumm, Michael Zerang, John Corbett, Terri Kapsalis, Michael Colligan, and members of TV Pow and Town and Country. Thursday, June 20, 9:30 PM, Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western; 773-276-3600.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Jackson.