Saxophonist Dave Rempis builds a band with the stamina for deep dives | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

Saxophonist Dave Rempis builds a band with the stamina for deep dives 

The lively quartet this Chicago mainstay brings to the festival finds the meditative heart of free improvisation.

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Clockwise from upper left: Jim Baker, Avreeayl Ra, Dave Rempis, Ingebrigt Håker Flaten - JIM NEWBERRY, COURTESY DCASE, CENGIZ YAR, COURTESY DCASE
  • Clockwise from upper left: Jim Baker, Avreeayl Ra, Dave Rempis, Ingebrigt Håker Flaten
  • Jim Newberry, courtesy DCASE, Cengiz Yar, courtesy DCASE

In my idiosyncratic personal dictionary, the current definition of the word "omnimusician" is a little different from the one you might've found there ten years ago. At that point, it would've meant someone who plays all kinds of creative music—free, composed, conducted, acoustic, electronic. Now the term applies to a different kind of figure, one who not only pursues an interest in many different approaches to playing music but also takes a multifarious role behind the scenes. For these folks, a whole batch of whom now live and breathe as if there were never any other way, making music also requires making music possible. And documenting it.

Dave Rempis has been on the Chicago scene for more than 20 years. I vividly recall his first gigs as a member of the Vandermark 5, where in 1998 he'd replaced Mars Williams as second saxophonist to bandleader Ken Vandermark. Rempis was just 22 when he shifted from studying jazz and ethnomusicology at Northwestern to vying for a spot in the Chicago creative-music pantheon. He was crackling hot. With some bop licks still to shake out of his system and a bright, searing tone on alto and tenor, he spent years diligently shaping his sound and learning the ropes of free music, crafting a musical persona unique to him. It's been beautiful to follow.


Dave Rempis/Ingebrigt Håker Flaten/Avreeayl Ra + Jim Baker Quartet
Sun 9/1, 4:15-5 PM, Jay Pritzker Pavilion


From very early on, Rempis wasn't satisfied to sit and wait for the phone to ring—he knew, as he started to organize and lead his own ensembles, that he'd need to hustle. Further, he knew that the hustling wouldn't always be on his own behalf—he'd need to help fertilize and nurture the improvised-music community as a whole. So in 2002, he began booking a weekly series through the nonprofit Elastic Arts Foundation. In his subsequent 17 years of service (he's now president of Elastic's board), Rempis has added countless seminal gigs to Chicago's improvised-music history, providing a consistent outlet as other venues came and went.

The call of DIY resounds loudly for Rempis. In 2013, he added the record label Aerophonic to his roster of projects, and since then he's put out more than 20 CDs as well as five digital-only downloads, all of them documenting his work with great care and precision. Meanwhile, as a player and leader, he's been challenging himself, pushing his music to new places, exploring new partnerships, and forming fresh ensembles.

Rempis has known bassist Joshua Abrams since they were at Northwestern together in the mid-90s. In 2012, wanting to play more regularly with his old friend, Rempis formed a trio with Abrams and drummer Avreeayl Ra. Abrams and Ra had already worked together extensively in various contexts, and the three of them clicked immediately. I saw one of their first gigs, and something about it reminded me of John Surman's 1970s band the Trio, with bassist Barre Phillips and drummer Stu Martin—irrepressible grooves, free motifs, a sense of boundlessness and joy. Aerophonic released the trio's debut, Aphelion, in 2014.

A couple years later, with the trio's vibe fully developed, they added keyboardist Jim Baker as a fourth voice—though they retained their status as a trio and attached Baker's name with a "+," suggesting his status as an invitee. "We added Jim just because we all have pretty long histories with him, including a trio formation with those three," says Rempis. "It felt like a logical continuation of the work we were already doing as a trio, that furthered the band's dialogue while continuing the conversation, rather than starting a completely new one."

Baker is the ultimate wild card. He's the unexpected turn, the twist in the story, the surprise witness. Whatever you think he'll do, think again. On ARP synth or on piano, Baker is one of Chicago's true originals, his greatness rarely hailed as loudly as it should be. And in this group, true to form, he adds mystery and humor and intrigue to the action, complicating the groove, interrogating the motifs, eavesdropping on the ensemble's ESP. "Jim's one of my favorite improvisers because he actually improvises every time and doesn't just do his shtick," says Rempis. "All three of them have ridiculous ears, and the ways in which we're able to anticipate one another's decisions are pretty astounding at times. In the first 30 seconds of the new record, I hit a tonic and then immediately jump up an octave to the flat ninth, which is somewhat of a weird choice. But Jim beats me to the punch by a split second, hitting the same flat ninth."

Rempis is talking about a 30-second stretch, but don't expect short stories from this band—they work in book-length pieces, digging in rather than holding back. "I just find that usually my idea of how music develops isn't based on the pop-music model that so many folks seem to want to hear, even in jazz, with short clear tunes and not much exploration," he says. "In terms of human musical culture around the world and across history, this idea that music should be limited to three-minute or even eight-minute chunks is unusual. And I find that trying to reach the type of meditative depth in the music that we're going for takes some time. Personally I think it's where it's at, if you're trying to arrive at something deeper than a fun bass line or a pop hook."

The Rempis/Abrams/Ra + Baker configuration has now released two CDs—the most recent, Apsis, is brand-new. Rempis doesn't seem at any risk of exhausting his chemistry with these musicians. "What I like most about them all is that each of them is both opinionated and stubborn in what they do," he says. "They all have very detailed and thoughtful philosophies on their approach to music, and more particularly to free-improvised music. And yet they're all willing to budge when someone else presents an equally strong vision."

For the occasion of the Jazz Festival, Abrams is away touring in Europe, but he'll be replaced by another bassist Rempis has worked with frequently: Norwegian powerhouse and onetime Chicago resident Ingebrigt Håker Flaten. The change promises to shift the group's dynamic in interesting ways.  v

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