When it comes to free improvisation, analog synthesizer is not the first instrument that comes to mind–but given its vast sonic potential, maybe it should be. Just like a saxophonist or pianist, a synth player must be intimate with his machine, must know from experience and practice how to manipulate its thicket of patch cords, in order to communicate and respond to rapidly shifting musical ideas. And although a growing number of “serious” musicians have incorporated electronics into their work–including Matt Wand, Pat Thomas, Phil Durrant, and Chicago’s own Jim Baker–none has achieved the range, dexterity, and imagination of Thomas Lehn. His background as a jazz and classical pianist certainly helps explain the logical design of his improvisations, but his kinetic, otherworldly music is nonetheless without precedent. Lehn, who lives in Cologne, has performed in Chicago once before, in November 1998 with Johannes Bauer, Axel Dšrner, and the DKV Trio, and within those dense and dynamic surroundings he still managed to make a dramatic impact, working with dervishlike speed to spin a full spectrum of colors through the output of his cohorts. On his spectacular recent U.S. debut, a two-CD series of duets with percussionist Gerry Hemingway called Tom & Gerry (Erstwhile), Lehn takes a more austere approach: as Hemingway scrapes, saws, and sands away at his drums, he creates sympathetic squiggles, yelps, grunts, and guttural utterances, some of which sound almost human. He performs with Hemingway on Wednesday at 10 PM at the Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western; 773-276-3600.

Peter Margasak

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