English percussionist Tony Oxley didn’t even begin learning his instrument until the age of 17, but within a decade he was the house drummer at Ronnie Scott’s prestigious London jazz club, performing with American legends like Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans, Stan Getz, and Lee Konitz in their heyday. Before long, however, Oxley’s mastery of the jazz idiom left him itching for a new challenge. He found it in guitarist Derek Bailey, and together with a handful of other adventurous musicians, they began to explore the notion of free improvisation; in 1970 Oxley founded the little free-music giant Incus Records with Bailey and saxophonist Evan Parker because no established label would gamble on what they were doing. Currently he leads the Celebration Orchestra–whose The Enchanted Messenger (Soul Note), from 1996, is a tour de force of large-scale improv–and in addition to playing with a who’s who of European improvisers, he’s worked with musicians from British saxist Tony Coe to avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor. Oxley’s a superb timekeeper who can push the role of percussionist in all sorts of extreme directions; on a 1992 quartet album on Incus, with Bailey on guitar and Pat Thomas and Matt Wand on electronics and samplers, he blended improvisation with his interest in contemporary classical and electroacoustic music, while his work on trumpeter Bill Dixon’s Vade Mecum and Vade Mecum II (both on Soul Note) reveals a gentler, more coloristic side. Oxley’s long-overdue Chicago debut comprises two gigs and an exciting cast of coconspirators: On Wednesday he’ll be joined by German violinist Andreas Schreiber and Chicago tenor titan Fred Anderson. On Thursday Oxley will play the first set in Cercle, a trio with Schreiber and pianist Dieter Glawischnig. For the second set, they’ll be joined by Anderson and trumpeter Billy Brimfield–a reunion of sorts, since Glawischnig was the man responsible for bringing both Chicago horn men to Europe for the first time back in the 70s. Wednesday, 9 PM, Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western; 773-276-3600. Thursday, 8 PM, Unity Temple, 875 Lake, Oak Park; 708-383-8873. PETER MARGASAK

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