The innovative and exciting Dave Rempis Percussion Quartet celebrates its 10th anniversary with two concerts this weekend in Chicago at Constellation. From his beginnings on the Chicago scene playing in Ken Vandermark’s band to his leadership of a number of groundbreaking ensembles, Dave Rempis has emerged as a singular voice on alto saxophone in the new millennium. I had the pleasure to interview Mr. Rempis this Spring in order to highlight the leader and the Percussion Quartet’s accomplishments over the past decade.
Interview with Chicago-based saxophonist Dave Rempis via email, April 28-May 15, 2014
Cisco Bradley: How did you first come to be involved in the Chicago scene?
Dave Rempis: I went to Northwestern University from 1993-1997. My first regular experience going to see concerts was at the Green Mill on Friday nights from ‘93-‘94, going to see Ed Peterson’s Quartet with Willie Pickens, Brian Sandstrom, and Robert Shy, which was a great band, doing extended mid-period Coltrane kind of stuff.
Around the spring/summer of ’95 I heard of a place called the Lunar Cabaret, where Ken Vandermark was booking concerts. I went there around July (?) of that year for a couple of concerts with his band Steam, and NRG Ensemble, and heard Ken, Mars Williams, Kent Kessler, Jim Baker, Harrison Bankhead, Tim Mulvenna, and Steve Hunt for the first time – all musicians who have become a major part of my musical life in the city to this day. I also discovered the Hothouse around the same time, where I saw a very unique grouping of Fred Anderson, Jodie Christian, Harrison Bankhead, and Kahil El Zabar.
In the fall of ’95, I went to study in Ghana for a year. When I returned in ’96, a number of friends were all DJ’ing at WNUR, Northwestern’s radio station. They all knew about everything going on, and started taking me out the Empty Bottle, Velvet Lounge, and many of the other great places that were doing stuff at that time. That exposure really got me excited about the music, and I started really seriously practicing a ton, and formed an early quartet with some friends at Northwestern that did a range of music from free jazz to contemporary classical. That band would occasionally open up for a jam/funk band I was playing in regularly at a great club called the Bop Shop from ’96-’97.
As soon as I graduated, I got a bartending job at the Bop Shop, and met Tim Daisy there, perhaps still my closest and definitely longest-term collaborator in the Chicago scene. He played a regular gig on Monday nights, and I’d occasionally sit in with a trio he had at the time. Right around the same time, I asked Ken Vandermark for a lesson after a show I saw with The DKV Trio at the Velvet Lounge. I took a couple of lessons with him, right around the time that Mars Williams was leaving the Vandermark Five. When he finally did that in early 1998, Ken asked me to audition for the band, and hired me. That was definitely my baptism by fire into the scene – both joining that band, and workshopping ideas and forming different bands with Tim.
CB: Tim Daisy has been one of your longest-standing collaborators. What do you most appreciate about him as a musician? How did you first meet?
DR: I’m not really sure what I most appreciate about Tim – whether it’s his musical approach, or his personality, or what. We’ve been working together so long, I don’t really even think about it – he’s family, if that makes sense. Tim always shows up to play every time, and even though he’s pretty laid back, he’s also a no-bullshit, hardworking, midwestern type, who can deliver something creative every time, even after a brutal travel day on tour, or whatever the case may be.
CB: What thought went into forming your quartet with Jim Baker, Jason Roebke, and Tim Daisy?
DR: At the time, Jim, Jason and I had been doing a monthly gig at a place called Lula Café in Chicago. I was really intrigued by Jimmy Giuffre’s drummerless trios, and a record with Evan Parker, Paul Bley, and Barre Phillips that I really liked, so I put this trio together to explore that idea a bit further. Particularly the question of how to maintain rhythmic momentum in the music without a percussionist, and in music where time isn’t even necessarily being outlined explicitly, was intriguing to me. After doing that for awhile, and definitely getting a lot out of it, it just somehow felt right to add a drummer on and see how the language we’d developed as a trio was refracted differently by that addition.
CB: What sparked your idea to form your percussion quartet with two drummers?
DR: The formation of this band really had to do with the peronsal affinity of the musicians involved, hearing Tim and Frank play a duo concert together around 2003, and my experience in Ghana during my college years studying ethnomusicology, African percussion ensembles, etc. In a way, the idea was to somehow recreate some of the types of interactions I’d heard in that music, but with an improvising ensemble that used kits. That music still has a big effect on me, and on the ways I improvise and interact with a rhythm section as a horn player, so this was something that I really wanted to delve into.
CB: How long were you in Ghana? What specifically did you study when you were there?
DR: I was there from September 1995-June 1996, with about 6 weeks in Egypt in the middle. I lived at the University of Ghana, Legon, just outside of the capital Accra. The actual classes I took were a fairly wide survey of things during my first semester, and all music classes during my second. Those were almost a background to what I was really working on though. The University library there was amazing, as was the small but incredibly focused library of the International Center for African Music and Dance which was founded by one of the most influential ethnomusicologists of all time, Professor J.H. Kwabena Nketia. This center was housed at the music department at the University, and the National Dance Ensemble of Ghana also rehearsed there. So I had the chance to meet a number of amazing scholars, dancers, and musicians from all walks of life.
Aside from classes, which were a minimal focus in a way, I would spend mornings reading various ethnomusicology texts, and afternoons out in the grove between the music school and the university bus stop, where many musicians would gather to play, teach, study, etc. I studied both hand percussion and gyil, (xylophone) there with a few different teachers. My goal was never really to become a proficient percussionist, but the physicality of delving into some of those rhythms is quite important I think.
I also played saxophone with some reggae and highlife bands around campus, doing various parties, etc. All of those things were definitely important for my education in very distinct ways.
CB: What techniques did you use to get your percussion quartet to become familiar with the Ghanaian/West African rhythms that you had studied? Did it involve a period of immersion in that music for them as well or did you accomplish that through composition?
DR: I never made any attempt to do that, and that quartet was never formed with the intention of specifically trying to duplicate that music in an explicit way. If anything, the biggest lesson I was hashing out in drawing on that music was in the idea that saxophone, bass, and drums really don’t need to interact in the traditional ways that western music might prescribe – melody/harmony/rhythm, and that actually those “duties” could be divided up in very different ways. For me, that probably meant more that as a saxophonist I was trying to interact with the rhythm section as an equal, and get right there in the mix, rather than float on top as a melody maker. Also, every one in that band has their own relationship with West African and other musics from around the world that greatly influence their playing to begin with, so I wasn’t about to try to school anyone on anything! Lastly, the band has always been a free-improvising band, so there are no compositions that force people to deal with a particular rhythm or something.
CB: What in particular about the interactions between Tim Daisy and Frank Rosaly have made the percussion quartet a success?
DR: Perhaps the fact that Tim and Frank are so different musicians and don’t eat up the same space/bandwidth with a given groove, anti-groove, etc. They find amazing ways to fill in spaces around each other, and Ingebrigt and I, without stepping on one another’s toes. In some ways I think of the comparison between them in terms of a Billy Higgins/Ed Blackwell type of dichotomy, with Frank in the Billy Higgins role, and Tim in the Ed Blackwell role, just in terms of their basic sound on drums, and really just how they hit them.
CB: How does the two-drummer quartet change or reposition the role of bassist in that band? How did Anton Hatwich and later Ingebrigt Haker Flaten take to that music?
DR: I think it actually means the bass player is really the rudder for the whole ensemble. They become the one who determines the shape and direction of many things in the music with just a subtle shift in momentum. I think both Anton and Ingebrigt have done remarkable jobs in that role, with Anton perhaps being a totally fearless, charging-on-through type of player, and Ingebrigt almost taking a reverse tack, where he can certainly hold it down, but he’s also totally willing to sometimes throw a wrench into the gears and see where we all end up. Both approaches are/were great to work with!
CB: How has Ingebrigt Haker Flaten put a distinctive stamp upon the percussion quartet since joining the band in 2009?
DR: I think Ingebrigt is one of the most badass bass players in the world playing this kind of music. So he’s added a distinctive stamp in many ways – he can singlehandedly take on two drummers and myself, and wrestle the band into/out of a particular type of sonic space. He’s an incredible soloist, so he makes a great foil as another melody instrument for me to play off of, or by allowing me to simply back off for a bit and let him lead the charge. Lastly, he’s one of the most open-minded, positive, and idealistic people I know, so he’s great to tour with, and nicely balances my own sardonic personality.
CB: You have put out an impressive five albums with the percussion quartet since 2006: Rip Tear Crunch (2006), Hunter Gatherers (2007), The Disappointment of Parsley (2009), Montreal Parade (2011), and Phalanx (2012). Could you talk a bit about each album and how the band’s approach to free improvisation has evolved over the years?
DR: Six actually, including 2005’s Circular Logic on Utech Records, which came out in a limited edition of only 125 copies. (available for download at the website Candy Dinner…)
Honestly, I prefer to let other people look at the records and formulate their own thoughts on it. I don’t really think about it. The band’s music has been evolving slowly over many years (this is our 10th) and I don’t really feel a need to step in and force a shift from one record to the next, the way a pop band might. We’re not going for the “new sound” or something, each record is simply a document of where we were, as a live improvising unit, as that point in time. I can’t even say that I remember what Rip Tear Crunch sounds like exactly, as 2006 was probably the last time I listened to it. (After spending hours and hours selecting material, mixing, etc. going back to it is not always that pleasant of an experience…)
Generally speaking, I tend to look forward, and am not particularly interested in thinking back through my career/recordings to analyze my own trajectory or that of a particular band. As long as the music still feels like it’s happening and changing when we play, that’s the important thing to me.
CB: Do you have another record planned for the percussion quartet?
DR: We’re looking at doing a full-on U.S. Tour in the fall of 2015, something we haven’t done since 2007 actually, as we’ve mostly toured in Europe. So there will likely be a record that comes out in time for that. Not sure yet where we’ll draw the material from, but we have several things in the can, as well as two live shows in Chicago in June of this year that will be recorded.
CB: You have also had two duo projects–one with Tim Daisy and one with Frank Rosaly. Did these duos grow out of work you were doing together in the percussion quartet?
DR: Actually, both of these duos started before the percussion quartet. But I definitely look at both as in some way informing the larger group. Both of them most definitely have lives and personalities of their own as groups, but in some sense, I consider them an opportunity to get to know Frank and Tim better, and those lessons certainly play into the quartet.
CB: What compelled you to form the record label Aerophonic in 2012?
DR: I’ve written about this on the Aerophonic Records website (www.aerophonicrecords.com). Basically, in an era where musicians have taken on the responsibility for booking their own shows, managing their web and social media presence, booking travel for their tours, producing masters for labels, etc., publishing our own material is the next logical step. And although many of the labels I’ve worked with are run by folks who I consider close personal friends, with all the best intentions, the labels left still putting out this music simply don’t always have the time or resources to do it in a professional manner. This means recordings came out grossly behind schedule, with crappy artwork, no promotion, etc. And the waiting list to get on a label’s release calendar is generally 2 years or so.
With the amount of music that I’m working on in different bands, and the nature of the era in which we live, 2 years is too long to wait. I can now release the music I want, with packaging I like, in time for the tour that’s coming up, and not have to depend on other people to get it done. It also helps me further integrate the network of fans, presenters, writers, etc. that I’ve been cultivating for years on the road, etc.
So really, in many different ways, I view this as the only logical step for an active improvising musician in this day and age.