On the new debut album by Dragons 1976, On Cortez (Locust), alto saxophonist Aram Shelton, bassist Jason Ajemian, and drummer Tim Daisy (all born in 1976, the Year of the Dragon) lay bare the components of their simple, uncluttered music and bet everything on careful phrasing and attentive interaction. Shelton, one of Chicago's finest young reedists, is the main songwriter and the focal point; his tart, deceptively light tone recalls Ornette Coleman's without seeming to reference it, and his lines never lose their quick melodic thrust. The well-matched Ajemian and Daisy maintain an even keel for the most part, and when they do break out Shelton tends to dial down, preserving balance and generating tension. On "Canopy" the Dragons play with positive and negative space: Ajemian starts up one of his hypnotic ostinato patterns, joining with Daisy to craft a loose, airy groove that cuts in and out; Shelton's improvisation changes in feel as the context shifts around him. When the rhythm section speeds up and intensifies the groove on "Felt," with Daisy dropping tough snare bombs and Ajemian chugging like a train, Shelton gets pulled along a bit by the forward momentum but retains his footing. The solos are not only well distributed but well located--they don't come in a boring round-robin, but rather bubble up out of unlikely places. It's a shame Dragons 1976 don't play out more regularly: they're pretty great already, but steady gigging could make them into one of the city's best and most exciting groups. Sunday, February 22, 9:30 PM, Hungry Brain, 2319 W. Belmont; 773-935-2118.