Tuesday, December 28, 2021

A Look Back at 2021 Albums on Aerophonic with Dave Rempis

In spite of everything, 2021 could be considered a productive year for Chicago saxophonist Dave Rempis. His Aerophonic imprint released a handful of physical CDs of various projects that came together over the prior year, with some from the early part of this year as well. Of the discs discussed here, two came out early in 2021, one dropped just a few months ago and one isn't officially out yet, though Rempis has offered pre-orders on the Aerophonic site. The final days of the year always serve as a good time to both look back at what came out and look ahead to what's coming. Incidentally, the site is offering a special deal through the end of this month - 3 in-print CDs for $30, with a special deal for a vinyl edition of the Rempis/ Ra album.

Rempis - Reid- Abrams - Daisy - Damon
Solos, Duos & Trios - The COVID Tapes

Like many musicians, Dave Rempis (alto, tenor, baritone) had his livelihood put on hold when the country went into lockdown in early 2020. One thing to remedy the situation was the weekly release of digital Aerophonic albums that featured recordings from various projects dating back over 20 years. Each release was launched with a live solo performance from his practice space. The COVID Tapes features six of those solos interspersed with performances in duos and trios that happened later that year in live outdoor shows. 

The two discs offer a revealing profile of Rempis' musical scope. Known more as a cutting edge free improvisor (as revealed by some of the other releases included here), he's clearly in touch with tradition too. The solo pieces range from Joe McPhee's bluesy "Knox" to standards like "The Song Is You," "On Green Dolphin Street" and "Just a Gigolo." These tracks  are compact, none lasting much more than six minutes each. Faithful to the original tunes, he zeros in on what makes them so essential, adding his personal touch to them.

The live performances stretch things further, with the various groups getting time to open up, explore the space and use it to their advantage. Rempis mentions in the liner notes how doesn't relish outdoor performances, due to sonic limitations. Yet he sounds comfortable moving from spare long tones to a more developed piece with drummer Tim Daisy. A trio with cellist Tomeka Reid and bassist Joshua Abrams captures his alto darting around the foundation set by the lower strings. Drummer Tyler Damon sets up an aggressive mix of trap kit and sustained percussion rings (almost sounding like two players going at once) and Rempis responds with the most aggressive performance of the album, bending and wailing notes. These recordings lack any major post-production work (and include faint street sounds like barking dogs and a truck's back-up noise if you listen closely), but the immediacy of the music makes any sound "improvements" unnecessary.


The Rempis Percussion Quartet
Sud Des Alpes

The Rempis Percussion Quartet gets its name from the fact that it includes two drummers (Tim Daisy and Frank Rosaly) in addition to bassist Ingebrigt HÃ¥ker Flaten and Rempis. Together since 2004, they create a sound where the two drummers work together and sound like one, even in the freest situations, never overpowering the rest of the group. In fact, Rempis' tenor saxophone is the loudest element in the music on the freewheeling "Late Arrival," second only to Flaten. 

The three tracks on Sud Des Alpes comes from a 2019 performance in Geneva. While all of these albums offer a good introduction to Rempis' saxophone style, this one presents one of the most compelling. He begins opener "There's a Jam On the Line" (a title inspired by the group's delayed travel by train) with visceral growls, and moves on to include fragments of melody, heavy vibrato and overtones, moving from each one for a fascinating voice. The group plays the Art Ensemble of Chicago's "Theme for Yoyo," beginning it just as spontaneously, it seems, before moving into a drum break and - eventually - their own furious groove.

All Your Ghosts In One Corner

Kuzu brings Rempis together again with drummer Taylor Damon and adds guitarist Tashi Dorji. The latter makes a strong addition to this group's uninhibited free improv sound with a sonic palette that ranges from wild skronk to mutant surf tones, going from twang and buzz. It makes a perfect third element to go along with Rempis' altissimo shrieks and Damon's thundering clatter. For what it's worth, Dorji is probably also the reason that this album wound up on my Best of 2021 list. (They also released an album for Astral Works earlier in the year, The Grand Delusion.)

"Scythe" is a 40-minute performance recorded at Chicago's Elastic Arts at the end of a March 2020 tour, just as things were starting to close down everywhere. The continuous performance is divided into three tracks, breaking where the dynamics shift reach a fevered pitch. Catching a band at the end of a tour usually means hearing at them when they can get involved in a deep discussion, and "Scythe" is no exception. Dorji's harmonics or quick exclamations add punch to the alto wails. In part two, an oud-like tone turns out to be a loop and some fast strumming comes out of nowhere to land on top of it. The drum solo sections could continue for another couple minutes and not loose any momentum. Rempis begins on alto, switching to tenor in the second part and rips up the final section with some monstrous baritone work. 

The extended performance is bookended by two shorter tracks recorded one night later in Milwaukee. They serve as a good preview and comedown after "Scythe." "One Fell Swoop" features a lot of heavy drum rolls, wide vibrato and guitar twangs, coalescing more like a composed piece than a spontaneous one. "Year of the Rat" features more baritone madness against a relatively spare groove that comes from percussives and fretwork. Maybe "comedown" isn't quite accurate in this case as this one can knock you backwards.

Dave Rempis/Avreeayl Ra Duo

After the grit and growl that capped off All Your Ghosts In One Corner, the sax/drums duets on Bennu feel relatively subdued. But that is far from a bad thing. The three tracks, recorded in February 2021, find two friends getting together after not having played with anyone throughout the winter season. It also feels like they're waking from a musical hibernation in real time, Ra laying down grooves on his kit, with cowbells adding to the sound along with the low-pitched toms. Rempis often gives him space before he begins to blow.

At the start of the 20-minute "Divisions of Time" Ra plays with mallets, freely moving around the kit, singing wordlessly, capturing the spirit of being able to play again. After the free intro, in which Rempis eventually enters on alto, Ra goes into a low volume groove that sustains, with slight variation, for the whole piece. It feels hypnotic after awhile, which makes the repetition and low dynamics rewarding in the end. 

The album opens with "Persea" which gives Rempis a chance to show off a beefy tenor tone, slipping in some growls on the side. "Fire and Ash" also features his tenor over a rolling sound of toms and tight snare, moving at a deliberate but focused pace.

Rempis and Ra took the name Bennu from an ancient Egyptian deity or symbol that created itself out of darkness at the beginning of time, much like the Phoenix in Greek mythology. Considering when this music was created, the name makes a good comparison. 

Bennu will be officially released in January 2021, but Aerophonic is already shipping advance orders - especially ones on a gray/blue ripple-colored vinyl - now. In case you missed mention of it earlier in this piece, the label is offering a special 3 for $30 deal on any in-print CDs. 

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