Chicago-based saxophonist Dave Rempis (Rempis Percussion Quartet, Vandermark 5, Ballister, and many more) has recently launched his own label, Aerophonic Records. The third and fourth releases, Aphelion by Rempis/Abrams/Ra (pictured above) and Second Spring by the Rempis/Daisy Duo (pictured below), will be in stores on January 21 and can be ordered now from the label. Interestingly, they won’t be available from Amazon or on iTunes.
Aphelion features three tracks—one short, two long—from three different performances, recorded between April and September 2013 by the trio of Rempis, switching between alto and baritone saxophone; Joshua Abrams playing bass, guimbri and small harp; and percussionist Avreeayl Ra. The music has elements of jazz and “world music,” blending sounds that could be from Asia, North Africa, or some polyglot Chicago neighborhood bar. It’s meditative at times, throbbing and visceral at others. It begins with the under four-minute “Ruah,” an atmospheric piece featuring what sounds like kalimba, the aforementioned small harp (which, judging by this, must be hand-held), and soft, low blowing from Rempis. It’s sort of Konono No. 1-meets-music box, gentle and beautiful. The longest track, the 26-minute “Noriya,” seems to travel through a series of movements, with Rempis picking up the horn, blowing long, almost Peter Brötzmann-esque solos, then resting as the rhythm section goes to work for a while, then coming back. It’s incantatory, with Abrams plucking the bass at times and bowing it at others, and Ra driving what sounds like a minimal kit with ferocity and imagination. Aphelion‘s 21-minute final track, “Saqiya,” features hand drumming, guimbri, and exploratory but never raucous saxophone. It recalls Pharoah Sanders‘ Bill Laswell-produced album with Maleem Mahmoud Ghania, The Trance of Seven Colors. This is a fascinating, multifaceted record that’ll hit you with one unexpected moment after another, all of them enjoyable.
Second Spring is a duo between Rempis (here playing alto, tenor, and baritone saxes) and drummer Tim Daisy, with whom he’s worked for nearly two decades in the Vandermark 5, the Rempis Percussion Quartet, and many other groups. This is their second duo encounter, following 2005’s Back to the Circle on Okka Disk. It’s got a lot of groove and muscle to it, at times recalling Fred Anderson‘s almost symbiotic teaming with Hamid Drake. Given the minimal instrumentation, the two men are forced to be imaginative to keep things compelling for an hour, and they definitely do that. For example, while the opening track, “Impasto,” is blustery and hard-driving, the piece that follows, “Numbers Lost,” plays with space and quiet the way the first used volume and impact. Sometimes Second Spring swings, sometimes it simmers, and sometimes it rocks. It may be (slightly) less eclectic than Aphelion, but it’s no less powerful, and just as much fun to listen to. I don’t recommend choosing between them.
I conducted an interview with Dave Rempis about these two albums, living and working in Chicago, starting and running an independent label, and more.
The Rempis/Abrams/Ra Trio has been together for a little over a year; how did this group initially come together, and what are/were your collective musical goals?
I’ve known Joshua Abrams since we both attended Northwestern University together in the mid 1990’s. He was actually one of the first people I ever saw play in Chicago, in a student ensemble. Although we hadn’t worked together a ton over the years, we both knew each other quite well, and had even toured together on a double bill tour with the Rempis Percussion Quartet and Mike Reed’s Loose Assembly in Europe in 2008. Sometime in late 2011 or early 2012, we started doing some long overdue duo concerts together, which I think we both really enjoyed.
Around the same time, Mars Williams was working with a trio with Kent Kessler and Avreeayl, and they invited me to be a guest on three or four gigs. That was actually the first time I’d played with Avreeayl although I’d seen him plenty of times over the years.
Talking with Josh one day, we just decided it would be a nice idea to try out a trio with this lineup, as it just made sense on an intuitive level. And the band came together immediately…it was just one of those first-time outings that really seemed like it needed to continue, so I kept finding work for the band around Chicago.
As far as goals, I don’t know that I’m a goal-oriented player, exactly! With this band, as with most of the bands I play with, we get up onstage and try to follow where our personalities and the music lead.
The CD features tracks from three different performances—how often do you play together, and is this a group you prioritize, or is it just one of many projects?
Currently, I’d say this is one of the projects that I prioritize in Chicago. Up until this past fall, when I was on the road quite a bit, we were playing about once a month in the city, something I plan to continue as long as I’m in town. I have many different groups that are all at various stages of development, some of which have the opportunity to tour, make recordings, etc., and others of which are at an earlier stage of development. Some of the groups that are more established (Rempis Percussion Quartet, Ballister, The Engines) don’t even have much of an opportunity to play in Chicago anymore, since some of the members of those bands don’t live here. So they tend to work more on the road at this point. But playing regularly at home with projects that have time and space to develop organically is extremely important to me, and I’d say this group is helping to fill that role at the moment. I look at this recording as the first document of a trio that I hope will continue working regularly for some time to come, and certainly one that will continue to push and workshop ideas regularly in Chicago.
You’ve been playing together with Tim Daisy for over 15 years, in various contexts; what do you think is the basis for your musical affinity with each other?
Tim’s like a brother to me in the music…I think my conception of the music is inextricably linked to his since we started working together at a very young age. We hung out together, played together, listened to things together, and eventually spent months or probably even years on the road together by this point, all of which has gone into shaping individual musical aesthetics that overlap greatly. I don’t know that I could really describe the depths of that relationship and affinity since it goes deeper than I probably even realize, but perhaps most of all it’s rooted in friendship and a sense of humor about what we do.
When you two work together in other people’s groups, how do you balance the language you’ve developed as a duo with fitting into someone else’s concept?
The duo context is so specific, I’m not sure it really affects our playing in someone else’s group where we both participate, unless a section of the music calls for a duo with the two of us. We both work in so many different contexts, together and separate, that I think it’s not that challenging to change up an approach based on what a bandleader is asking for.
There’s a strong groove element to the duo music (at times it reminds me of Fred Anderson’s playing with Hamid Drake)—how important is groove to you, when playing in a duo context?
I love playing time, whether it’s something that’s really swinging or an odd-meter feel, or whatever. There was a point in time when I was younger where I was extremely curious about European improvised music, and the choice to move away from using time explicitly. I almost viewed that as a more “developed” sense of time and its possibilities. But as I grew more as a player, I got comfortable with the fact that it’s just something I gravitate towards and enjoy, and that’s natural as a Chicagoan surrounded by so many great improvisers who use time explicitly in many different ways. Hearing Fred and Hamid play together many times over the years, as well as so many other great musicians whose sense of time is so incredibly deep and nuanced, was certainly an incredibly important and inspiring thing, and helped to nurture my own interest in it.
That said, my interest in music that doesn’t necessarily draw on groove is equally as strong. I think both are important possibilities within the larger context of being an improviser that carry equal weight as musical tools. And there’s plenty of music on our new duo CD that exemplifies that.
In general, the Chicago jazz environment (I’m deliberately avoiding the word “scene”) seems built more on organization and collectivism than the New York scene, which appears much more cannibalistic and competitive. To what do you attribute that difference, and how has it impacted your work over the years?
I’m a bit wary of characterizing the New York “environment” in a particular way as I can’t say I’ve engaged with the environment there all that much, aside from the great relationships I have with some of the individual musicians there. Looking at Chicago though, I think the tone was set here by many generations of musicians, but perhaps most importantly in the last few decades by Fred Anderson and Von Freeman. Their work as musicians/bandleaders, club owners (in Fred’s case), educators (in non-academic settings for which they received no compensation), and mentors to many generations of musicians created a real open-source model that encouraged people to support one another, work together, and try to build an attitude and approach that’s about much more than the music. It’s a life approach. And although we’ve lost both of them in the last few years, their model most definitely lives on in the city through the entire scene, whether it be musicians, club owners, writers, or whoever. There is a sense that people here are working together to further the music overall, not just their own career, and that’s been incredibly inspiring to me during my tenure here. I’ve produced over 500 concerts at the Elastic Arts Foundation as part of my Thursday night series there, and every time I get tired of it, which definitely happens, I think of walking into the Velvet Lounge so many times over the years, to find Fred sitting at the door, night after night, taking the cover. He didn’t need to do that, but providing artists with a platform to work on their language was so important to him that he made an incredible personal sacrifice for decades. That feeling goes deep, and anyone who experienced it can’t help but have their attitude shifted.
In part I also think the pressure is off here a bit compared to New York. It’s just a much cheaper city to live in, so paying rent is easier. Gigs are also easier to come by, as this is a city of vast geography, that once hosted a bar on almost every corner. Many of them are still there, so all it takes to get something going is finding a decent place and starting up a series of some sort. There are also fewer industry people in Chicago—i.e. critics, record labels, jazz tourists, etc.—so we can actually work here and focus on our music, and have regular performance opportunities, without the added pressure of competing with everyone to get on the next big festival in Europe, or get a record out on ECM. The “career” and “business” aspects of being a musician can greatly distract you from actually making anything new, or worth hearing, and I think in some ways the musicians in Chicago are more easily able to achieve a balance between spending their time doing the busy work of pursuing a “career” and creating something that’s artistically worthwhile, since these opportunities aren’t dangling in front of them all the time.
You recently started the Aerophonic label, which is deliberately avoiding working with Amazon, iTunes, CDBaby and the other outlets independent labels typically use to reach the market, though you are on Bandcamp. Tell me about the realities of that—are you making it harder on yourself in terms of losing the “stumble-upon” sales and recommendations-via-algorithm that Amazon can provide, or does it balance out in terms of making a higher profit on fewer sales? I’m curious about the pragmatic realities of this model, and I’m sure other artists reading this will be interested as well.
I personally don’t believe in the stumble-upon theory so much. I may be wrong, but I think that most of the people who engage in this music to the point of wanting to buy something already know what they’re getting into. And I think the people who don’t know the music aren’t going to take the chance on buying it anyway, although they might stream it for free. But there are thousands, if not millions of bands with music streaming online, and CDs up for sale on Amazon, much of which is total crap. So it all just becomes background noise that cheapens the value of something worthwhile, and that’s not a way in which I want my music to be presented.
For people who do know the music, but don’t know my work, and who might be convinced to purchase something if they get some exposure to it, there’s a million different ways they can find out about me. My record label and I are only a Google search away, as are countless YouTube clips, etc. So overall, I just don’t see a reason to cut Apple or anyone else in for a gross percentage on my hard work when they’re not doing anything to help me out. If I actually thought those platforms would introduce me to new fans, then maybe, but I just don’t believe that the audience for this music is getting educated by an Amazon algorithm. They’re hearing about things from friends on Facebook, fan blogs, etc. So that person may purchase independent music from iTunes because it’s easy, but they’re not discovering it there in the first place. And I have all of the technical capabilities in place at the Aerophonic Records website to accept online orders, do digital downloads, etc., so it’s just as easy for someone to purchase from me directly. I think most of the folks who are interested in this music tend to be educated, artistically and politically progressive, and understand the concept of buying local.
Lastly, I think the benefit of having direct contact with people who are interested in my music is incredibly important. I’ve spent years building my network within the music, of fans, musicians, presenters, writers, etc. etc. This is the first chance I’ve had to be in direct contact with so many people who might purchase my music elsewhere, who I’d never know about. So if that does mean a handful fewer sales, that’s totally fine with me. I think the value of building that network even further is worth any minor, and I really mean minor, sacrifice in terms of potential sales through a faceless corporate entity that’s profiting off so many other artists.
Aphelion and Second Spring are available now from Aerophonic Records.