Every performance by the Chicago Luzerne Exchange is different -- freely improvised, with nothing planned beforehand. Some might view this method as an easy approach. One review of the quartet's 2005 debut, Several Lights, attributed the album's better moments to luck -- random parts that happened to converge.
Cornetist Josh Berman laughs as he recalls the review. "No, man! We worked on this a lot," he says. "We spent a lot of time improvising together, many, many gigs and rehearsals. There was lots of thinking about it, so you hope that's enough to carry it." While it may be true that anyone can improvise, the real skill comes in creating something cohesive.
It helps that Berman, tenor saxophonist Keefe Jackson and drummer Frank Rosaly are active in the Chicago jazz scene, playing in several bands as leaders and sidemen. The three, led by Jackson, play together in the 12-piece ensemble Project Project, and in Fast Citizens, a smaller group whose leadership changes depending on whose compositions they chose to feature. Berman also leads a quintet that released the impressive 2009 album Old Idea, a set of original pieces that tipped its hat to mid-'60s "free bop," a style that kept the roots of jazz in sight while pushing forward into newer territory.
Though many of the same people turn up in these bands, the music bears different identities, exploring the tonal varieties created with different instrumentation.
Berman has also been active in the Chicago club scene, organizing a Sunday-night series at the Hungry Brain with drummer Mike Reed. It complements regular events at other venues around town that support the jazz scene as a whole.
"It's a very serious mix of people working super-hard and very conscientiously towards a great thing," Berman says. "Finally, I think it's starting to get more recognition [nationally]. There is something very real here that has a lot to do with jazz and free improvisation. And a lot of these players have a very interesting way of dealing with both of them."
Adding the "Luzerne" to the quartet's name is Swiss tuba player Marc Unternahrer, who came to Chicago in 2002 as part of a Sister Cities Luzerne-Chicago program, and struck up a rapport with his current bandmates. The tuba might not typically be found in a jazz-improv setting, but Berman calls Unternahrer a virtuoso who adapts easily.
"He comes from a classical background. He's really into new music, but he's very loose," Berman says. "He also has great rhythm and time."
From the beginning, the Chicago Luzerne Exchange agreed they would keep things spontaneous, by leaving the composing to their other projects. "There's lot of room for solos that feel like compositions," Berman says. "It's definitely not narrative -- our work is not, 'OK, here's the story, here's the layout.' But there is some story being told."
Unternahrer's background adds an intriguing wrinkle to the music. But Berman's own interests span the searing free jazz that came out of Chicago with Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians to the traditional, melodic playing of cornetist Ruby Braff.
"I like jazz, I like old jazz and I like sounds," Berman says. "Having something like a totally objective sound and also something that's from the land before bebop -- that is something I think about every day."
The Exchange's upcoming appearance at the Thunderbird Café, on Mon., Oct. 25, adds another adventurous element. After performing their proper set, the musicians will accompany a spoken-word performance by Eugene S. Robinson. The frontman of San Francisco's Oxbow, Robinson is known for his high-pitched execution of pithy lyrics as well as his tendency to get into physical altercations with more rowdy members of an audience.
Robinson and the band don't yet know each other personally, but that only adds to the evening's possibilities. "We're not exactly sure what's going to happen, but it sounds like it's going to be fun," Berman says. "He knows what we do; we kind of know what he does. It's going to be a meeting, for sure."
Chicago Luzerne Exchange with Eugene S. Robinson. 8 p.m. Mon., Oct. 25. Thunderbird Café, 4023 Butler St., Lawrenceville. $8 ($10 at the door). 412-682-0177 or www.thunderbirdcafe.net