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Thursday, February 26, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 12.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Surrounded by Reality music series changes hands
Experimental-jazz shows will continue at Audio for the Arts studio
Deconunisms perform a Surrounded By Reality show on Monday, July 16.
Deconunisms perform a Surrounded By Reality show on Monday, July 16.

Experimental-jazz booking crew Surrounded By Reality continues to fling its key members around the continent.

Guitarist Luke Polipnick just left Madison for Omaha after a couple productive years booking the series and playing in a variety of jazz outfits. The University of Michigan's graduate-level improvisation program will eventually claim bass player Ben Willis, who's been involved in Surrounded By Reality lately.

One of the founders, Brooke Jackson, now works for the Pabst Theater group of venues in Milwaukee, and another, saxophone player Patrick Breiner, didn't live here all that long before heading back to the New York City area.

Starting this summer, Surrounded By Reality is in the hands of someone firmly rooted in Madison, Steve Gotcher, an owner and engineer at Audio for the Arts. The recording studio, which shares bathrooms and a salty-aired hallway with roast-beef joint Full of Bull, has turned its cozy live room into the series' primary venue for audacious and abrasive jazz acts, many of them fairly big gets from out of town. The shows tend to be casual, intimate, and BYOB.

Jackson, Breiner and Polipnick initially started booking the series at the Project Lodge in late 2009, when they were fairly new in town. "We each brought a knowledge of three different jazz scenes," says Jackson. "Me, primarily Chicago; Patrick, primarily New York; Luke, primarily Minneapolis." In February 2010, the group brought in heavyweight jazz drummer Matt Wilson's quartet for a show at the Lodge.

Audio for the Arts began hosting shows after Breiner came to record there and struck up a conversation with Gotcher. The studio's main room can comfortably accommodate a band and a few rows of chairs, and it generally feels snug with a crowd of 20 to 30. In recent months, Polipnick has been doing most of the actual booking work.

Surrounded By Reality shows I've caught include the furious, precise bass-and-drums abuse of Chikamorachi and the intricate compositions of Wrack. I've gone into all of them fairly ignorant of the artists, and I've consistently enjoyed their powerful fusion of high technical skill and noisy sabotage.

Several of Polipnick's, Breiner's and Willis' acts have been part of the lineup. Willis and Polipnick's free-jazz trio Glacier played at the Project Lodge on June 9 (with Chicago band Tony Barba's Facetime) to celebrate the Glacier album Monolithic. Willis' project Weather Duo recorded a collaborative release with Dutch avant-garde musician Jaap Blonk during a Surrounded By Reality show back in March.

In fact, Gotcher and his colleagues have been recording every show that takes place at Audio for the Arts. Some of the artists have purchased tracks for their own releases, including the trio Tres Hongos, which used music from its January show there for about half of its recent album, Where My Dreams Go To Die. Gotcher is working on getting a compilation together, and he is thinking of running a podcast through the Surrounded By Reality website, to showcase excerpts and maybe even complete sets.

Don't accuse Surrounded By Reality of achieving perfection just yet -- a little more consistency and promotion would go a long way. But whether you're a listener or an upstart promoter, you can learn something from the series.

Often the acts seem like ones that would be tough to persuade to play a small show in the Midwest, and also ones nobody else in Madison has bothered to bring in. Getting a consistent crowd, even of 20, can count as an accomplishment, when you're bringing this kind of music to a smaller city.

In my experience, audiences have included not only local jazz players, but also folks I've seen at local noise-rock shows, and folks I've never seen at any show before. Plus, while there really is plenty of solid white-dudes-with-guitars music in this town, it's refreshing to be forcefully yanked out of that circuit every so often. It's also worth pointing out that Surrounded By Reality has maintained a presence, despite the kinds of organizational changes that sink many well-intentioned artistic ventures.

Gotcher says he's still getting organized for shows in late July, August and September. On July 16, Audio for the Arts will host Deconunisms, a trio featuring Polipnick (back in town so soon!) and New Yorkers John Christensen and Devin Drobka. Also coming up are Merciless Ghosts (Jul. 31), Chives (Aug. 30) and Sonny Simmons Trio (Sept. 11).

Gotcher is open to having shows at other venues, but for now, he wants to keep the series to two events per month. He'll also try to streamline what has been a hectic collaborative process, especially by promoting events further ahead of time. Shows at Audio for the Arts will generally start at 8 p.m., and Gotcher's hiking the cover from $8 to $10, "mainly because it's a pain in the ass to have change."

The other Surrounded By Reality members will still share their contacts with Gotcher. Polipnick says Kathleen Baird, a member of Spires That In The Sunset Rise and a frequent Surrounded By Reality attendee, might help out as well.

Jackson voices apprehension that the series may not continue in the long term, but she isn't shy about calling the series an accomplishment. "I personally believe an avant-garde cultural scene is really important to the overall cultural scene," she says.

For his part, Gotcher admits there isn't much money in it -- he gets enough regular recording business that he can afford to host the shows. But he's grateful for the opening Jackson, Breiner, Polipnick and Willis have created in Madison's live-music lineup.

"I'm really happy to see that at least 20 or so people will show up to hear a concert of this kind of music, and that the bands are willing to play even though they don't get paid that much," Gotcher says. "I've lived here since the early '80s, and avant-garde noisy music has never really had a great following [in Madison]... I've missed noisy music in this town for a long time."

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