Kyle Bruckmann canít quit Chicago. He left the Midwest in 2003 for the Bay area, but hasnít severed ties with the Big Onion and its deep network of skilled players. And when itís come time to reconvene Wrack ó the chamber jazz group that Bruckmann formed in 2002 ó heís inevitably on the phone to Chicago. That Bruckmannís not attempting to recruit a band of bayside mercenaries isnít surprising. Since 2003ís self-titled album, Wrack has grown increasingly idiosyncratic, and while Iíve recently read a handful of refutations of the term ďdifficultĒ to define that art that challenges us or otherwise defies convention, in this situation it still seems apt. Cracked Refraction canít be easy music to play, and itís not candy-coated for smooth swallowing on the other end, either. As a title, Cracked Refraction has the potential to twist the tongue, and the musicís just as hard to keep straight.
Cracked Refraction ties its complex knots with infectious vigor and a predilection for playfulness. Wrackís melodies are slithering and serpentine, and the music is built of smaller segments assembled in what can seem a slapdash manner, with all sorts of jutting ends and unexpected collisions. What Bruckmannís done, though, is intentional, placing his players on different planes, with straight lines failing to meet, runs of notes ricocheting at impossible angles, and expected avenues folding in upon themselves. Thereís plenty of unison playing, with Bruckmannís oboe often paired with Jen Clare Paulsonís viola, or Jason Steinís bass clarinet, but itís often a given that where two or three play together, the remaining Wrack-ers will be doing something totally different over top or underneath. Tracks like ďThe DishevelatorĒ donít just subvert the straightforward with compositional intricacy and technical skill. Bruckmann is certain to inject almost every piece with some unexpected levity, to pull the carpet out from underneath the quintet with a sudden change from frenetic to serene, or to have Tim Daisy interrupt the proceedings with an explosion of kitchen sink percussion.
This may all encourage thought of Bruckmann as musical jester, of Cracked Refraction as goofball gimmickry or high-minded farce. But while itís true that Wrackís most recent effort might have more musical pratfalls and colorful cartwheels that the groupís 2003 self-titled debut, itís not all fun and games. ďA ShamblesĒ abandons its circus revelry to engage in variations on extended tone, the ribbons rising and falling over Daisyís clatter like theyíre being held aloft by a gentle wind. ďNJBCĒ is the closest Wrack comes to playing a ballad, featuring sonorous, somber soloing over a pattering rainfall of pizzicato strings and marimba.
Unlike some ostentatiously adventurous jazz, Cracked Refraction rarely gets so wound up in itself that the listener feels like a third (or in this case, sixth) wheel. There is feeling here, and itís music made by humans for humans, in which a high degree of difficulty brings rewards not just to those doing the playing, but the audience at home following Wrack along their tangled paths.