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Interview Thu Nov 07 2013
By Stuart Ross
Dave Rempis has been an integral part of the Chicago music scene for 15 years. He curates many of the performances that keep the city a global destination for improvised music. He's also one of the main organizers of the Umbrella Music Festival, now in its eighth year, going on today and throughout the weekend.
Dave's recordings have been reviewed in The New York Times, The Chicago Reader, Downbeat, and others publications. The long list of musicians he's collaborated with includes Roscoe Mitchell, Fred Anderson, and Ken Vandermark.
I talked with Dave about the Umbrella Fest, starting his own record label, how music drives social change, parsley, and a few other things.
How many instruments do you play and what are they?
Alto, tenor and baritone saxophone. I played clarinet in middle school and high school, although it's been years I also own a soprano saxophone and a flute, but I wouldn't say I play either!
You're originally from Boston, and came to Chicago to attend Northwestern. What kept you here after school and what keeps you here today?
I was offered a gig replacing Mars Williams in the Vandermark Five about six months after graduating from Northwestern, which was the immediate thing that kept me here (although I had no plans to leave at that time.) In general, the improvised music scene has kept me in Chicago; you can work as a musician here, and the city is cheap enough compared to other options on the coasts so you can actually afford it.
As part of the festival, you're playing Friday night at Constellation, 3111 N. Western Ave., with electronics improviser Brian Labycz. Can you tell us a bit about what to expect? What other performances during the festival are you looking forward to?
I've played duo with Brian in Chicago many times, and once in a duo with Swedish guitarist David Stackenas, who's also on the set this Friday. I actually don't know quite what to expect — this was sort of our "ad hoc" booking for the festival, something we like to do so that there's some real improvising happening on a first time meeting of musicians, and not just within established groups. With the wide range of sounds these guys have in their palettes, the set could go anywhere, from long white noise drones to hard articulations, squeals, and pops.
Aside from that, I'm really looking forward to almost everything we've got going on this year, although the duo of Joe McPhee and Ingebrigt Håker Flaten on Sunday at Constellation is something I've been wanting to hear in Chicago for a long time. Their duo recordings together are some of my favorite CDs of the last few years.
You started your own record label this year, Aerophonic. Where does the name come from?
An "aerophone" is a musicological term for any instrument where the sound is created by a column of air. Such as a saxophone. I liked the addition of "phonic" since it reminded me of the word stereophonic.
One of the label's first releases is Boss of the Plains. The soft, modal nature of the compositions on Boss of the Plains might surprise some listeners who expect free music to be abrasive and loud. Do you bring a different strategy to playing in a trio with vibes and bass than you do playing with two drummers in your Percussion Quartet?
I don't think so. My ideas aren't based on the instruments necessarily, but more on the personalities involved, and what we gravitate towards together while we're playing. You could have a band with the same lineup as either one of these two groups that played drastically different music.
The liner notes speak of a "telepathic empathy" between you, vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, and bassist Nate McBride. I believe it. Can you talk more about what's improvised and what's pre-written on that recording.
Actually, although the band and the CD sound very compositional, the entire thing is free improvisation.
Your compositions have some great titles. If I had to ask about the genesis of any one, it'd be "The Disappointment of Parsley." We've all been disappointed by herbs. Any backstory to this one?
It's funny -- everyone thinks that the disappointment is about the parsley. In fact, this was taken from a short poem my friend Dmitry Krasnov read at Quimby's a few years back. It went something like:
The disappointment of parsley
sold at a ten percent discount
That was the gist of it...so the disappointment actually belongs to the parsley, which failed to live up to the standards it had hoped for!
Can you comment on what touring as an improviser, the "ridiculous-tragic travel itineraries," as you've called them, has been like in 2013.
As "ridiculous-tragic" as they are, I still love playing and it's been a busy year. Aside from my regular work in Chicago, I did three weeks in Europe with Ballister (a trio with Paal Nilssen-Love and Fred Lonberg-Holm) in February/March, two weeks with the Engines (quartet with Jeb Bishop, Nate McBride, and Tim Daisy) in the States in April, and a week with Tim Daisy as a duo in May. This fall I was out with my Percussion Quartet for two weeks in September, and I'm heading back for three weeks in November with Ken Vandermark's Resonance Ensemble, plus some duo concerts with Michael Zerang in Poland, Austria, and Germany.
There's a comment Ken Vandermark makes in his film Musician that sticks in my head like a song: "Look at our society. These are risky times. To me the question shouldn't be is the music atonal. It should be, is it atonal enough?"
Do you ever think of social progress and playing music in the same breath?
The history of jazz and social progress are deeply intertwined on every level, from the first racially mixed groups that Benny Goodman led and made no compromises with, to Max Roach's groundbreaking Freedom Now Suite, and up through current times, whether it be in regards to the various wars this country has undertaken in recent years, or to social movements such as gay rights. On a less explicit level, jazz is inherently a music that allows for meaningful personal expression without necessarily sacrificing group integrity, and the balance of those things between the musicians offers a model for possibilities within the society at large.
Well said. Any music you're really into these days outside of what you might normally listen to?
I bought some gospel stuff on an odd Christian label a few months back. Some great stuff by Albertina Walker and James Cleveland... not a bible-banger by any means, but the music is fantastic.
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