Tomato Box | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Tomato Box 

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TOMATO BOX

"Tomato Box" is an oddly clunky, utilitarian name for percussionist Michael Brenneis's quartet. It belies the frequent delicacy of their postmodern chamber improv--delicacy that survives bassist Henry Boehm's arco shrieks, the occasional police siren, and the battery of hubcaps and kitchen utensils Brenneis uses alongside his small conventional trap set. In groups like this a vibraphone, with its icy, silken tone, commonly turns up in place of a piano, but Tomato Box's front line pairs Anders Svanoe's alto sax with Geoff Brady's marimba--another unusual choice. Though the marimba lacks the vibes' electrically driven tremolo and long sustain, demanding more aggressive mallet work, its lighter, warmer sound better complements the alto. Brenneis's colorful compositions have some of the same angular bite as Ken Vandermark's writing, but he usually softens it with a rolling lyricism that draws on Eastern scales--which, played on the marimba, sometimes suggest gamelan music. On Talisman (Rattle Tick Buzz Records), Tomato Box's impressively focused new disc, the tunes share center stage with the solos in a delicate balance between notated composition and unstructured improvisation; at times, like during the suspenseful modal vamp in "Shake the Apparatus," the band gets suspiciously (but delightfully) close to the similar balance Dave Brubeck attained with his 1940s octet and on the best recordings his famous quartet made in the '50s. Formed last year in Madison, Wisconsin, Tomato Box made its local debut a couple months ago with an underpublicized gig at a small, rudimentary new space called the Brick House, where Brenneis and Boehm kept up a blithe running commentary behind the solid and engaging solos. Hopefully this show, in a larger, more established venue, will be a better coming-out party. Sunday, December 10, 8 PM, No Exit, 6970 N. Glenwood; 773-743-3355.

NEIL TESSER

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