When Andrew Bird is improvising with, by turns, a violin, guitars, a glockenspiel, and the looping pedal that helps him construct his signature polyrhythmic tracks, he often loses himself. “You’re in the middle of it,” says the 44-year-old musician, “and you’re just like, I don’t know how I got here.”

Tracing the steps of how the violin virtuoso and Lake Forest native ends up just about anywhere in his music is more art than science. For his album Echolocations: River, released in October, Bird took a violin and a field recorder to the Glendale-Hyperion Bridge in northeast Los Angeles, where he now lives, and improvised melodies while wading in the Los Angeles River. “It’s all based on a hunch,” he says. “I go in, send out sound waves, and see what bounces back.”

A sweeping pastiche of sounds, River is the second of Bird’s new five-part Echolocations series, in which the music is inspired by surrounding environments. The project began with Canyon, recorded in Utah’s Coyote Gulch in 2015. Bird has also completed Fog, recorded on a Marin County peninsula overlooking the Pacific, and Aqueduct, which was captured in a 17th-century aqueduct in Lisbon, Portugal, but he has yet to release those two albums.

Wet feet notwithstanding, River took a decidedly smaller toll on Bird than last year’s Are You Serious, for which the famously abstruse lyricist wrote about his wife’s cancer diagnosis (she’s now in remission). The album—making it, talking about it—exhausted Bird. “It felt like exploitation,” he says. “I wanted to bring it back to music.”

That music now propels Bird’s American tour, including his annual four-night stint at Fourth Presbyterian Church—he jokingly calls it his version of a Vegas residency—which begins this year on December 11. Returning to the city is fraught for Bird. “Every corner is so familiar, and that can be comforting or really depressing,” he says. Still, if Echolocations is an experience of rich, complex spaces, Chicago falls squarely at the heart of that notion: “It’s not exactly home, but it doesn’t feel like anywhere else.”

Andrew Bird, 12/11-14, Fourth Presbyterian Church, 125 E. Chestnut St., See resellers