Artist Feature

Dave Rempis
By Ken Waxman

For proof that a committed improviser can build an impressive career outside of NYC, look no further than Chicago saxophonist Dave Rempis. The Massachusetts native, who relocated to the Windy City in ’93, is kept busy touring with his own bands as well as in a variety of other groups. This month he’ll play two rare gigs in the Apple, as part of a completely new configuration with trumpeter Nate Wooley, bassist Pascal Niggenkemper and drummer Chris Corsano.

Rempis would often bump into Wooley at European festivals and Chicago gigs, so eventually they decided to combine forces. The trumpeter suggested the other players and the four will record following the dates. The resulting CD may be a joint release on Wooley’s imprint plus Rempis’ six-month-old Aerophonic label.

Rempis, 38, who gained notice as a member of the Vandermark5 (V5) from 1998 to 2010, says that in today’s jazz scene “there’s not much difference between being a sideman and having a solo career. The paradigm has shifted since the 1960s, where recording contrasts would define a group.” Among the bands with which he works are The Rempis Percussion Quartet with bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and drummers Tim Daisy and Frank Rosaley; the Engines with trombonist Jeb Bishop, bassist Nate McBride and Daisy; Ballister with cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love; a trio with bassist Joshua Abrams and percussionist Avreeayl Ra; and a duo with Daisy. He’s also a member of pianist Pandelis Karayorgis’ quintet, Håker Flaten’s bands and many projects featuring multi-reedist Ken Vandermark.

Although Rempis and Vandermark grew up in neighboring towns, the younger saxophonist didn’t meet and see Vandermark perform until he was studying at Northwestern University .planning to pursue a degree in classical saxophone. Rempis began studying saxophone at eight, after being fascinated as a child by Zoot, the saxophone-playing Muppet. By his early teens an uncle’s cassette tape with The Charlie Parker Master Takes on one side and John Coltrane, Live at Birdland on the other, extended his horizons, as did an LP collection he was given by a fellow caddy “featuring everything from Circle to Slim’n’Slam”.

Initially obsessed with the saxophone’s technical aspects, Rempis’ classical orientation lasted one semester. “It was stultifying,” he recalls. “The syllabus laid out what mouthpiece you would use, which reeds and what piece of music you would be playing the next year. It was designed to turn out cookie cutter saxophonists”. Switching his major to anthropology with an emphasis on ethnomusicology, Rempis was leaning towards an academic career, when, during a year studying at the University of Ghana, Legon, his sax-playing was suddenly in demand. “It may have been because there weren’t many horn players,” he jokes. “But I figured if people wanted to hear me play there, why not here? I was re-inspired.”

Graduating, he began gigging and attending as many shows as he could, and soon connected with Vandermark. After taking a couple of private lessons, Vandermark told him that V5 needed a replacement saxophonist. Being young and able to travel as part of the band’s phenomenally busy international schedule, Rempis fit right in. “It was really an invaluable, inspired situation, but nerve-wracking as well since it took me a while to get up to speed,” he recalls. “It really kicked my ass at the time.”

Different musicians including Bishop, Lonberg-Holm and Daisy passed through the V5 during Rempis’ tenure, and he maintains a relationship with Vandermark, including membership in the large group playing Vandermark compositions and the Chicago Reed Quartet. In the early aughts Rempis also began recording on his own, often in the company of Daisy, with whom he has played in a duo since 2001. “The duo setting is a liberating situation,” he states. “There’s lot of harmonic playing and it provides intensity, flexibility and exhilaration.”

Although he insists that “every project I’m in brings out a different facet of my playing”, Rempis describes the Percussion Quartet as most distinctive. The Ra/Abrams trio is also noteworthy, since the other musicians have AACM ties. That’s an outsider’s view, Rempis cautions. He has known Abrams since Northwestern and first played with Ra in another quartet. When he and Abrams decided to expand their duo, Ra was the logical choice. “This group came together organically,” he declares. “It’s not as if I suddenly decided to play with guys affiliated with the ACCM.” After 20 years of players going back and forth, the supposed North Side/South Side divide among Chicago jazzers is exaggerated, he insists.

Aphelion, with Ra and Abrams is one of four discs available on Rempis’ Aerophionic label, which came into existence in mid-2013. Aerophionic, he explains, allows him more control over presentation and closer links between CD releases and touring schedules. Its birth came when the saxophonist noted that many of the imprints for which he recorded were scaling back their operations and that some had so much product that it could be about two years before a session was released. “I felt I was better off working for myself”, he declares. “As a musician I had the contacts and a network of people, such as distributors and writers, I know around the world. We’re living in an age where a musician has to do things completely for himself. It’s part of the DIY marketing effort that came out of punk – the tools are all there.”

The name is a combination of “aerophone”: any musical instrument that produces sound by causing a body of air to vibrate; plus phonic, “which I always liked”, he reveals. “It’s a good ‘60s word like ‘stereophonic’.” Plans are to release three to four CDs each year, but due to logistics and expenses, they’ll be his own projects, although that may eventually change.

Aerophionic isn’t that much of a stretch for Rempis, who unlike many jazz musicians has music business experience. For years he has curated weekly shows at different Chicago venues, most recently at the Elastic Arts Foundation, and is a member of the Umbrella Music collective that organizes the city’s annual Umbrella Music Festival. Another of his day job is doing bookkeeping for the annual indie-rock Pitchfork Music Festival. Although he states that the scene would be better if more musicians knew exactly how clubs operate, the rock and jazz scene are so distant that his gigs come from knowing people and his playing experience rather than any indie-rock connections.

Still, as he’s demonstrated since the 1990s, it’s an indefatigable work ethic and unwavering commitment to expanding the language of improvised music that keeps him working and on the road.

Recommended Listening:

The Vandermark 5 Free Jazz Classics 1 & 2 (Atavistic 2003)

The Vandermark 5 Burn the Incline (Atavistic 2000)

Ballister Mechanisms (Clean Feed 2012)

Pandelis Karayorgis Quintet Circuitous (Driff Records 2013)

The Pandelis Percussion Quartet Phalanx (Aerophonic Records 2013)

Rempis/Abrams/Ra Apheliom (Aerophonic Records 2014)

Rempis/Daisy Duo Second Spring (Aerophonic Records 2014)

—For The New York City Jazz Record February 2014