Dec 16, 1998 at 12:00 am

This is another artifact from the Chicago avant-garde scene which has yielded up such eclectic ensembles as Tortoise, Isotope 217 and the Chicago Underground Orchestra. The perpetrators this time are Rob Mazurek, cornet (mostly), piano and bamboo flute, and percussionist-vibist Chad Taylor, with guitarist Jeff Parker joining in on three of the nine cuts. The music is often sparse and willfully tentative, with a healthy respect for silence and the countervailing intrusion of sculpted sound, à la the great pioneering trumpeter Bill Dixon.

Most of the cuts are rather brief, pulse-free ruminations like "Not Quite Dark Yet and the Stars Shining Above the Withered Fields," a grayish, delicate piano-vibes portrait -- or the even more desolate "The Big Bang Theory," whose etiolated colors suggest the cosmic ennui just before the title event (which never comes). On "Pursuit" and "Into the Ultimate Blue," Mazurek plays blistering trumpet smears over the grounding clusters of Taylor's percussion. The longest cut, "January 15th," is a 10-minute reflection on Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, which flows and ebbs and flows again with jazz-like momentum, mixing Afro-percussion with freebop acuity. Some of the cuts seem to be undeveloped sketches, but throughout the players' focus never falters -- and if the turf they're working doesn't seem as fresh as it did 25-30 years ago, it's still, in the right hands, strange and beautiful.