Travis Laplante, a virtuoso saxophonist and composer based in New York, has worked with ensembles of varying configurations and built a following among fans of avant-garde structures and extended wind techniques. His latest venture, Subtle Degrees, is a duo with Gerald Cleaver, a like-minded drummer whose inventive, rich-textured playing both supports Laplante’s vision and adds fascinating layers of rhythmic counterpoint and commentary.

The ensemble’s first album, “A Dance That Empties,” recently released on the composer-run New Amsterdam label, is devoted to a single work, a 42-minute, high-energy score in three connected movements, from which the album takes its name. Laplante and Cleaver played the piece – which has evolved somewhat since the recording was made – at Space Gallery on Thursday evening.

It is a work that sneaks up on you. Although Laplante makes it clear from his first notes – a burst of unaccompanied, high-pitched multiphonics, or chordal sounds – that he does not intend to remain within the saxophone’s (or listeners’) comfort zone, the first movement seems to backtrack momentarily by offering an almost traditional, melodic theme.

Once Cleaver joins him, the piece begins to move farther afield, with a tip of the hat to the exploratory work of John Coltrane and the harmonic expansiveness of Ornette Coleman, and near the movement’s end, Laplante steps back to allow Cleaver an extended solo in which the drummer alternates between a thorough exploration of the trap set and the lighter timbres of assorted shakers.

It was the first of two such solos, compared with only one on the recording. There may be a reason for that, beyond a desire to give Cleaver a more equitable share of the spotlight: The rest of the piece is an exercise in circular breathing, a technique that allows Laplante to play a continuous line for 10 or 15 minutes, without pausing for breath.

In Laplante’s case, though, the line is not simply continuous; it is also fast, loud and so intensely involved that it creates the illusion of counterpoint. At one point, the texture he created included repeating bass figures set against frenetic upper register playing, full of swirling and fluttering. Elsewhere – most notably toward the end of the piece – Laplante lets this insistent texture melt into a steady, high-pitched wail.

All through, Cleaver’s detailed drumming provides an extra measure of drive, as well as an exploratory measure of timbre combinations interesting enough to wrest some of your attention from Laplante’s pyrotechnics. And though the live performance was roughly the same length as the recording, it seemed over all too quickly.

The Subtle Degrees performance, which was presented as part of the Portland Conservatory of Music’s Dimensions in Jazz program, was preceded by short performances by two Portland artists. Nat Baldwin, the bassist in Dirty Projectors, appeared in his other guise, as an author, and read an excerpt from the title work of his 2017 short story collection, “The Red Barn.”

Lauren Tosswill, an interdisciplinary performer whose work often involves spoken texts and electronic drones, presented a work that may represent a new approach for her. The piece involved vigorously scraping a microphone on the surface of a table for about 10 minutes. Though she moved across the length of the table, and around its edge, the changes in the amplified sound were subtle.

At its best, the work had the quality of a John Cage piece: If you listened closely, you could hear (or imagine you were hearing) distinct layers of timbre and rhythm, a hidden musical world within a wall of noise. That had its interesting moments, but not 10 minutes’ worth: Once you had identified and examined the strata within the scraping, which took perhaps four minutes, there was nowhere else to go.

Allan Kozinn is a former music critic and culture writer for The New York Times who lives in Portland. He can be contacted at:

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