Of all the non-Western axes wielded in improvised-music settings, Asian stringed instruments are perhaps the best established–Michihiro Sato, Sang Won Park, Jin Hi Kim, and others have integrated Korean and Japanese instruments into ensembles dominated by saxes, drums, and Western string basses. Miya Masaoka plays the best-known Japanese court instrument, the koto, a 21-string zither with an ancient legacy. Based in the San Francisco area, currently the focal point of a boom in Asian-American improvisation, Masaoka is an accomplished traditional performer as well as an adventurous improviser. On the recent Monk’s Japanese Folk Song (Dizim) she leads a superb trio with two first-wave free-jazz musicians–bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Andrew Cyrille–through a program of Thelonious Monk tunes and original compositions; it’s worth a listen just to hear her ply the tricky melodies of “Evidence” and “Epistrophy” on her huge horizontal harp. The threesome she’ll be working with in Chicago includes Fred Frith, whose explorations of tabletop guitar–electric guitar laid flat and attacked from above–imply parallels to the koto. Frith, who hasn’t performed in town in over a decade, is a worthy guitar hero. With Henry Cow and its follow-up, the Art Bears, he established the most experimental wing of art rock (alternately pronounced “out rock”), and he helped midwife the mutant offspring of pop, rock, soul, 20th-century chamber music, and free improvisation with the group Skeleton Crew. Frith’s composed some lovely music lately, including his sound track to Sally Potter’s The Tango Lesson and charts for the Fred Frith Guitar Quartet, but many of his recent rock-oriented offerings, alas, have ranged from overwrought to cutesy (listen in on the two French/Frith/Kaiser/Thompson records for gobs of the latter). Nonetheless, Frith remains a towering guitar improviser–friends who’ve seen him recently say he’s playing better than ever, which, in his case, is really saying something. Tonight’s trio is rounded out with sopranino and tenor saxophonist Larry Ochs, the “O” of the saxophone quartet ROVA; in the last half decade Ochs has emerged with a forceful identity, distinct from ROVA, relocating his dry, inventive sound to a variety of challenging settings. Odd man out among strings, he’ll find this unusual setting especially challenging, but he’s got the tools and the partners to make it work. Thursday, July 2, and next Friday, July 3, 8 PM, Unity Temple, 875 Lake, Oak Park; 708-383-8873. JOHN CORBETT

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Miya Masouka uncredited photo; Fred rith photo by Heike Liss; Larry Ochs photo by Helmut Fruhauf.