Kyle Bruckmann always felt he had a choice to make, and when he enrolled in the graduate music program at the University of Michigan in 1994 as a classical oboist he thought he was making it. “I actually thought I was going to grad school to finally settle down and behave myself,” he says. “I was going to get all the rock and illegitimate stuff out of my system, and then I was going to buckle down and get an orchestra job.”

It didn’t work out that way. Bruckmann wound up with degrees in both classical performance and contemporary improvisation. He’s been playing jazz, rock, and free improv in countless settings since he moved to Chicago in 1996; he’s used his classical training mainly to give the music lessons that pay his bills. His newest group, Wrack–a composition-and-improv-based quintet–celebrates the release of its debut album (on Canadian label Red Toucan) Wednesday at the Empty Bottle.

As a fourth grader in Danbury, Connecticut, Bruckmann wanted to play the viola or the bassoon–“they looked cool”–but when his mother couldn’t find him either of those he settled for the oboe. “There must’ve been something masochistic about it,” he says, “because early on music teachers would say, ‘Oh, that’s a very difficult instrument to play.’ So I must have had something to prove from the age of ten.”

He stuck with it, but by the time he was in high school he’d also discovered punk rock via the local college radio station and began playing synthesizer in industrial-punk bands. “It never occurred to me that those two worlds had any possibility of, much less business, interpenetrating,” he says. “Even through college I carefully maintained my distance between the college-radio me and the me that was practicing Mozart concertos.” Bruckmann studied music at Rice University in Houston, a school with a reputation for producing topflight symphony musicians and opera singers. There he met bassist Kurt Johnson–a music grad student–as well as percussionists Philip Montoro and Mark Stevens, who shared his love of punk rock and noise. Together they formed the aggressive punk-prog band Lozenge in 1992, with Bruckmann playing accordion. Before dispersing in 1994 they went on a two-week tour to New York and back, and the next year they released what they thought would be their first and last CD, Plenum. Bruckmann meanwhile headed to grad school at Michigan, where his interest in jazz and improv blossomed; by the time he was finishing up, he and the other former members of Lozenge had decided to reconvene in Chicago. The band practiced relentlessly and began playing locally; they’ve since released two more albums and toured several more times.

Shortly after Bruckmann’s arrival here, cellist Bob Marsh introduced him to the local free-improv scene, and he soon became a fixture on it. One of the first improv gigs he saw featured another oboist, Robbie Hunsinger. He approached her afterward; within a few months they’d found a third double reedist, bassoonist Tim McLoraine, and formed the trio Corvus. In addition to oboe Bruckmann had begun playing other double-reed instruments like English horn, raita, and suona.

After catching a solo ARP performance by Jim Baker, Bruckmann dug out a Minimoog he’d bought in high school and added it to his arsenal; the unpredictability that had made the keyboard unusable back then became an asset in a free-improv setting. “I’ve always been aesthetically fascinated with hobbled, broken, and misapplied crap,” he says. EKG–his project with trumpeter Ernst Karel–was conceived, in part, as a response to the laptop improvisation trend. “We like this laptop stuff, but we want to give ourselves a handicap by using this analog stuff.”

Earlier this year Bruckmann had something of an epiphany: he didn’t ever have to make that big choice after all. To a degree, Wrack helped him realize it. He assembled the group last fall, after being invited to present a project for a concert series at Northern Illinois University. He chose players he’d worked with before–Lozenge bassist Johnson, violist Jen Clare Paulson, trombonist Jeb Bishop, and drummer Tim Daisy–who combined strong improvisational skills with the ability to read music, minimizing the rehearsal needed before performances and thus making the group “more portable.” Daisy and Bishop are jazz and improv regulars, while Paulson and Johnson keep busy with classical gigs, and though Wrack is clearly a jazz record, with plenty of soloing, Bruckmann’s writing shows more classical influence than anything else he’s done: in the carefully mapped-out structures, the sophisticated voicings, and particularly the closely controlled dynamics. The oboe is a quiet instrument and can easily get drowned out in an improv free-for-all; here, Bruckmann says, he “can construct the context in such a way that everybody gets a chance to do everything that they do, and nobody has to worry about if their space is going to open up, because it’s built into the structure.”

“I’m beyond the ‘uh-oh, I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up’ stage,” he says. “I realized that I am grown-up, and this is what I am, so I decided to get a little more insistent about figuring out how to make it work….Maybe it’s not going to mean living in a warehouse and touring six months a year, but it’s about being more intentional, applying for grants, trying to make the process more sustainable, and admitting that it’s OK that I don’t want a full-time job and that it’s possible to piece something together.”

So far, though, this has meant making at least one tough choice in another arena: two weeks after the Wrack record-release party, he and his wife, Eveline Chang, will move to San Francisco. The couple wants to start a family; their parents now live in the Bay Area, and apparently when you’re piecing things together the prospect of free babysitting is too tempting to pass up. Bruckmann’s been cultivating musical relationships on visits out there–this spring he released Grand Mal (Barely Auditable) with guitarists John Shiurba and Ernesto Diaz-Infante and percussionist Karen Stackpole–and he’s trying to line up teaching work. He hopes to play festivals and tour with Wrack, and even though Lozenge’s upcoming show at the Fireside is being billed as the band’s last, he says the group seems impossible to kill.

Wrack plays the Bottle on Wednesday, October 15, and the Hungry Brain’s Phrenology Festival on Monday, October 27. Lozenge plays the Fireside on Saturday, October 25.

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