In the early explosion of free music on both sides of the Atlantic, there were lots of saxophone players but few trombonists–a puzzle, as the flexible sliphorn can fit in the cracks between everyone else’s notes, mimicking the fluid contours of speech. Those 60s pioneers included Grachan Moncur III, Roswell Rudd, Germany’s Albert Mangelsdorff, and England’s Paul Rutherford, who’s delved deep into the trombone’s voicelike character. His groundbreaking 1974 solo recording, The Gentle Harm of the Bourgeoisie (on CD from Emanem, a label he often turns up on), shows how effectively he’s remade established techniques like plunger-mute ‘talking’ and faking chords by playing one note and singing another. He gets an amazing range of oozy, owlish, brittle, and coppery timbres from the horn. Textural studies can lead to navel gazing, and orthodox English free players are forbidden to swing, but Rutherford’s squiggly lines keep moving–he has a Dixieland trombonist’s instinct for shooing things along to the next phrase. That quality alone makes him a valuable ensemble player, and he’s served in the cream of European co-ops and big gatherings since free play’s genesis–Spontaneous Music Ensemble, Iskra 1903, Instant Composers Pool, Globe Unity, Don Cherry’s Eternal Rhythm Orchestra, the London Jazz Composers’ Orchestra–as well as Charlie Watts’s ludicrous (albeit lucrative) gargantuan 80s jazz band. By now he knows what works and what doesn’t. In his own occasional outfit Iskrastra, the compositions aim to spur more than shape the improvising, and impromptu solos are encouraged. The band sounds slightly too big for comfort on an unissued 1998 concert recording, but the Rutherford sextet that’ll cap the Empty Bottle Festival of Jazz & Improvised Music this weekend should be the right size for close maneuvers. He’ll bring charts but may opt to let the players improvise; they include Rutherford-influenced trombonist Jeb Bishop, who should blend very well with the boss, cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, bassist Kent Kessler, and AALY Trio reedist Mats Gustafsson and drummer Kjell Nordeson. Sweden’s David Stackenas-Johan Berthling duo and Chicago’s David Boykin Expanse will open. It’s a reasonable bet that Rutherford will play one of the fest’s so-called surprise sets on Thursday or Friday too. Saturday, April 27, 9:30 PM, Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western; 773-276-3600.

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