His name may not ring a bell, but saxophonist Charlie Kohlhase leads one of the more imaginative small bands on the jazz scene today. It boasts a terrific pianoless rhythm section; a three-man front line that carries a total of six instruments; and a palette that ranges from charcoal to bright tempera–all of which make a sleekly customized vehicle for its leader’s pungent compositions and wry humor. The versatility of trumpeter John Carlson, and a gamut of saxes–from Kohlhase’s baritone and alto to Matt Langley’s tenor and soprano–allow Kohlhase to construct big, vibrant chords, which he uses to state his delightful themes and also to kibitz and contain the solos, which occasionally explode into free improvisation. The Kohlhase Quintet’s visit a year ago highlighted Dart Night (Accurate), its third album and by far its best, thanks to a mature command of styles from the big-band era to the avant-garde: songs like “If I Could” and “I Surely Would” subtly distort mainstream conventions, while “Wraiths”–whose title suggests Albert Ayler’s “Ghosts”–offers a series of open-ended duets. And the boisterous “Knee Bop” sounds like something a Sufi mystic might write if he’d been listening to the music of Thelonious Monk. Kohlhase has written for the twice-as-large Either/Orchestra, and he applies his formidable arranging skills to the quintet with intelligence and precision, balancing the relaxed “But I Can’t” with a perfectly placed countermelody and using a tension-inducing unresolved riff to shape the solo section in “Knee Bop.” In every case, the music rests on the imperturbable foundation built by bassist John Turner and open-eared drummer Matt Wilson (who brings his own group to town next month). Like the canary in the mine, the very existence of the Kohlhase Quintet deserves celebration: as long as these guys can find work, you know that jazz–even in the neoclassic age–still has room for ambitious exploration, uncowed iconoclasm, and unrepentant wit. Friday, 9 PM, and Saturday, 8 PM, Green Mill, 4802 N. Broadway; 773-878-5552. NEIL TESSER

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Bruce Hilliard.