For the last half century Chicago has become home to some of the most interesting experimental sounds in jazz, attracting young players from all over the country and abroad. Windy City musical aesthetics embrace eclectic visions without much regard for the purist tendencies that have sometimes imprisoned jazz musicians in artificial stylistic boundaries. The city provides space for a rich blues and rock scene and robust classical institutions as well as modern, traditional, and visionary jazz movements. One of the central figures on the contemporary Chicago scene is saxophonist, composer, bandleader, and musical organizer Dave Rempis.
Born and raised in Massachusetts, Rempis came to the Chicago area as a student at Northwestern; he first studied classical saxophone but soon switched to anthropology/ethnomusicology. A year after leaving college he joined the Vandermark 5, playing second saxophonist alongside Ken Vandermark, one of the most prominent and energetic musicians on the Chicago experimental jazz scene. Rempis spent over a decade with this band, appearing on a dozen recordings and touring throughout the U.S. and many other countries.
Even before the quintet disbanded in 2010, Rempis was working extensively on his own. He tours as a soloist, collaborates with musicians from all over the world, and leads eight different ensembles. These groups are quite distinct, using different instrumentation and highlighting different musical concepts. For example, his Percussion Quartet features two drummers and melodic lines that reference various elements of African and Latin American popular music as well as the saxophone creations of players such as Julius Hemphill and Ornette Coleman. Then there is Ballister, the trio that he brings to the Kerrytown Concert House on September 30.
Ballister is a power trio that allows Rempis to unleash the full range of his admirable mastery of the saxophone. Alternating between alto, tenor, and baritone sax, he exploits the unique timbral characteristics of each instrument. His jazz and classical studies provided a well-polished instrumental technique, and he can sing a sweet-sounding melody on the alto like some swing-era master. When the music requires it, though, he can screech, growl, play extremely high or low, or even play multiple sounds at the same time.
The other members of the trio are equally well known in new jazz circles: Norwegian drummer/percussionist Paal Nilssen-Love and another Chicago transplant, cellist and electronics manipulator Fred Lonberg-Holm. Together, they create a barrage of sound that assaults the listener from the first note. The rhythm continually shifts, referencing elements from jazz, punk rock, and various folk sources, while Lonberg-Holm’s cello emits every sound imaginable, often enhanced by electronics. This is highly aggressive music, but the noise is veneer that embellishes complex and subtle musical ideas expressed collectively by three musicians in perfect sync with one another.