Kyle Bruckmann can’t quit Chicago. He left the Midwest in 2003 for the Bay area, but hasn’t severed ties with the Big Onion and its deep network of skilled players. And when it’s come time to reconvene Wrack — the chamber jazz group that Bruckmann formed in 2002 — he’s inevitably on the phone to Chicago. That Bruckmann’s not attempting to recruit a band of bayside mercenaries isn’t surprising. Since 2003’s self-titled album, Wrack has grown increasingly idiosyncratic, and while I’ve recently read a handful of refutations of the term “difficult” to define that art that challenges us or otherwise defies convention, in this situation it still seems apt. Cracked Refraction can’t be easy music to play, and it’s 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 music’s just as hard to keep straight.
Cracked Refraction ties its complex knots with infectious vigor and a predilection for playfulness. Wrack’s 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 Bruckmann’s 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. There’s plenty of unison playing, with Bruckmann’s oboe often paired with Jen Clare Paulson’s viola, or Jason Stein’s bass clarinet, but it’s 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 “The Dishevelator” don’t 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 it’s true that Wrack’s most recent effort might have more musical pratfalls and colorful cartwheels that the group’s 2003 self-titled debut, it’s not all fun and games. “A Shambles” abandons its circus revelry to engage in variations on extended tone, the ribbons rising and falling over Daisy’s clatter like they’re being held aloft by a gentle wind. “NJBC” 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 it’s 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.