On the surface Chicagoan Steve Ramsdell’s quartet–showcased on his eponymous debut of last year (issued on Ramsdell’s own one-disc label)–resembles dozens of other guitar-led bands. Head a bit further into the disc, however, and little surprises pop up. A track called “Hang Zone” starts with twangy, lightly strummed chords, promising anything from a Neil Young song to one of the Yellowjackets’ more commercial ventures. But when drummer Tim Mulvenna sets up a vaguely Indian counterrhythm, and Mitch Paglia states the off-kilter melody on soprano sax, the band has staked out a different territory altogether. “Born to Be Weird” has a jumping, sharply angled melody line that rhymes in short bursts–as played in unison by guitar and soprano sax, it sounds like a collaboration between Thelonious Monk and Steve Lacy. The band’s ballads have a dreamy, smooth-jazz sheen, but the harmonic and rhythmic underpinnings leave space for imagination, and Ramsdell and company respond with simple and effective improvisations. Added on to the leader’s carefully crafted compositions, these solos complete the picture of a disciplined and single-minded ensemble. No wild forays by studious individualists intent on rocking your world with their creative tension: Ramsdell’s group (rounded out by bassist Larry Kohut) works like an ace gardening crew, taking time to trim each phrase, dig each idea just deep enough, prune the flamboyance, and measure each tone row. This attention to detail proves rather satisfying, but it comes with a focus on caution that keeps the music from making that quantum leap to another level of excitation. Whether the challenge of live performance can provide the energy needed for that to happen will determine the success of this weekend’s appearance. Friday, 10 PM, Bop Shop, 1807 W. Division; 235-3232. NEIL TESSER

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