Steve Nelson-Raney | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Steve Nelson-Raney

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Do-it-yourself music like free improvisation crops up in the most unlikely places. Enclaves of improvisers have appeared in out-of-the-way spots from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Arkhangel'sk, Russia. Count Milwaukee among those smaller cities with a fairly active free scene--multiinstrumentalist Paul Gaudynski, drummer Tony Finlayson, percussionist Terry Smirl, and instrument inventor Hal Rammel all hail from America's beer-and-brats capital, as does saxophonist Steve Nelson-Raney. Though he's been at it for many years, Nelson-Raney, who's also a composer and pianist and plays jazz with his group Eastern Earlines, recently issued his debut CD, a solo effort called Summer 1994 (Cody). It's a brave move to make your first release completely solo, particularly on the sax, which has a long lineage of unaccompanied artisans from Coleman Hawkins, whose late-40s innovations paved the way, to Evan Parker, whose investigations since the 70s have revolutionized the instrument. On both soprano and sopranino Nelson-Raney utilizes some of Parker's vocabulary, swirling sharp harmonics and tongue trills into a constant liquid flow; as a visual analogue, imagine a film that slips out of frame and suddenly reveals a new set of patterns as it sputters past. Elsewhere he explores individual shapes and textures in great detail, picking apart jagged, angular sounds as if doing geometry. In this respect he recalls the tonal temerity of fellow Wisconsinite Roscoe Mitchell, with whom he has played privately. Nelson-Raney's most unusual device, however, is a peculiar percussion setup on which he sometimes accompanies himself. Two miniature hi-hats around six inches in diameter sit at his feet, and while he plays he periodically activates them. Sometimes they initiate a spasmic little rhythm in dialogue with the horn, sometimes they're independent of the reed ideas. It's a stripped-down free-improvising one-man band that could make a living on only the hippest of street corners. Following his solo performance will be an all-reed concert by Ken Vandermark and Mars Williams, and later Nelson-Raney will join them for trios and mixed duos. Saturday, 10 PM, Lunar Cabaret and Full Moon Cafe, 2827 N. Lincoln; 327-6666.

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