This week’s paper includes a Critic’s Choice I wrote for the Lebanese improviser Mazen Kerbaj , who begins a five-night stint in the Chicago area Wednesday night at the Hideout, where he’ll perform with percussionist Michael Zerang and cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm (the gig starts at 8:30, earlier than usual). While Kerbaj has become a regular presence in these parts, a couple of recent releases suggest that the innovative scene he’s helped foster in Beirut is growing and making international connections.

Earlier this year Zerang released a collection of duets with various Lebanese players, Cedarhead, on Kerbaj’s Al Maslakh label. Most of the Lebanese folks favor a decidedly abstract brand of improvisation, where the trademark sound of a given instrument is frequently destroyed or forfeited in favor of amorphous noises, hums, clatter, and whinnies. Mostly Zerang, who loves Arabic music and was born to Assyrian parents, follows the “when in Rome” rule–there’s hardly a traditional Middle Eastern sound to be found. But there are a few exceptions: Raed Yassin, who usually plays the bass, manipulates tapes of traditional music and regional pop, and Zerang finds a way to implant driving darbuka grooves neatly into the sonic miasma.

 One of the most gripping performances comes from alto saxophonist Christine Sehnaoui, a player who’s really coming into her own with a tactile, almost miniature sound that manages to convey a striking range with a pinched, brittle tone. She’s also a key figure on a fine double CD called Beirut-Ystad on the Swedish label Olof Bright. The release documents a two-day festival that took place in Ystad and Hammenhog, Sweden, in September 2006, just months after the war between Lebanon and Israel. Pretty much the whole Lebanese scene–including guitarists Sharif Sehnaoui and Charbel Haber, reedist Bechir Saadé, and electronicist Jassem Hindi–collaborated with Swedes Mats Gustafsson, Sven-Ake Johanson, and David Stackenas, among others, as well as some other important European players. You can practically hear the Lebanese players gaining confidence, range, and creativity with each one of these releases.

Playing later Wednesday evening is the veteran Norwegian saxophonist Frode Gjerstad, a kind of invisible bridge between the pastoral “Nordic tone” of the country’s first ECM generation (Jan Garbarek, Arild Andersen, Terje Rypdal) and the current wave of more aggressive polymath innovators. Gjerstad has remained committed to a brawny strain of free jazz, braiding pure energy with loose motific elaboration. He’s in good company on The Other Side, a trio date with bassist William Parker and drummer Hamid Drake cut in Chicago back in 2000 and finally issued earlier this year as a download-only release by Ayler Records. Gjerstad’s got a sharp yet slightly thin sound on the alto, but he’s like the Energizer Bunny, storming over every peak and through every valley with unflagging vigor. He’s joined by the Norwegian rhythm section of bassist Oyvind Storesund and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love (pictured), who’s brilliant in this kind of context: driving, prodding, and explosive.

Nilssen-Love, who has graced local stages a lot recently in conjunction with the tenth-anniversary festivities for the Peter Brötzmann Tentet, recently launched his own imprint, PNL, and his first two releases on it focus on more outré collaborations. Late Play is a duet with organist Nils Henrik Asheim but there’s nothing remotely greasy about it. It’s an austere, stark, ominous work, with Asheim creating a dark, hovering atmosphere of doom—almost with an ambient electronic veneer, but much heavier. The drummer focuses on complementary textures–lots of high-frequency scraping, tactile rubbing, and concentrated clatter. Much louder and more visceral is Stalk, a bracing duet with noise maven Lasse Marhaug. The first track is so crushingly violent and frenetic it’s tough to tell if Nilssen-Love is even playing drums. But other pieces are more restrained, though no less physical, with the drummer locking in on Marhaug’s piercing roar with bowed cymbal action even while fighting the onslaught with furious bombs and high-velocity splatter.

Today’s playlist:

Sir Richard Bishop, Polytheistic Fragments (Drag City)
Strountes, Strountes (Slottet)
Ralph Alessi & This Against That, Look (Between the Lines)
Alog, Amateur (Rune Grammofon)
Shahram & Hafez Nazeri, The Passion of Rumi (QuarterTone)