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Rempis and Mates Pull it Together
By Kevin Whitehead
A few moments listening to saxophonist Dave Rempis' quartet is enough to hear why these four mainstays of the North Side improvising scene elected to band together. As Thursday's gig at 3030 confirmed, it's because they listen so well themselves.
The Rempis Quartet free improvises, makes up all the music on the spot. Some free players aim for pure abstraction, blip, blink blop. Rempis and company still think like jazz musicians.
In the course of an improvised set, the quartet -- with Rempis on alto and tenor saxophone, Jim Baker on keyboards and Jason Roebke on bass -- falls into orderly, jazzy episodes. There are solos that proceed by melodic variation, round robins among players and sprints that swing like crazy (thanks to drummer Tim Daisy).
The quartet also has a harmoniousness rare among free ensembles, which is a conspicuous feature of their new CD "Out of Season" (482 Music), recorded at the cozy converted church 3030 last fall.
This is where that close listening comes in, and Jim Baker, on piano or blurping old synthesizer, proves his exceptional musicianship.
Baker hears in harmony. If, say, Rempis improvises a descending phrase on alto, the pianist will identify by ear the pitches involved, and sound the same notes back all together, as a chord. Now the bass player picks one of those notes and starts repeating it, and saxophone and piano take that pitch as a new departure point.
It sounds complicated -- but then, it is. (And I'm dumbing it down.) And while all that's going on, Daisy is pushing the band on a whole other level, rhythmically -- setting the pace for all the other stuff.
The way the drummer plays four tight variations on the same rhythm at once recalls the influential, polymetric genius Tony Williams, most of whose disciples play as LOUD as he did. But Daisy can toss off all that intricate, flashy stuff at a disarmingly low volume. His rhythm is so compelling he doesn't need to shout for the other players to take note. He lets you hear the detail in their playing as well as his own.
Daisy has a good, springy hook-up with Jason Roebke, too. The bassist changes tactics a lot, plucking or bowing alternately, but it doesn't stop his headlong momentum. His pleasingly light and woody tone doesn't slow him down.
Dave Rempis gets better and better, playing alto or tenor with growing confidence and authority. I hear echoes of other saxophonists -- Ken Vandermark's gruff honking, vintage Oliver Lake's blend of earthiness and clean articulation, Marty Ehrlich's piercing high notes and short, striking phrases repeated for effect.
Rempis may not hear it that way, but no matter, because he doesn't really sound like any of them. He sounds like Dave Rempis, telling his own story, even if he borrows a detail here and there.
The idea in jazz, after all, is to tell the old story your way. Which is just what this quartet does. That new CD makes their case.
Kevin Whitehead is a free-lance writer who covers jazz for the Sun-Times.