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Dave Rempis: Communication, Improvisation and No Screwing Around

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Dave RempisSaxophonist Dave Rempis embodies all of the best qualities of the Chicago improvisational music scene: he's a gifted but disciplined player who knows his instruments inside and out; he's a fearless, imaginative improviser; and he uncomplainingly works his ass off.

Although he also plays tenor and baritone saxophones, Rempis is best known as an altoist. Certainly, that's the horn he's on most often in the Vandermark 5, Chicago reedsman Ken Vandermark's flagship group and the band with which Rempis is most famously associated—at least out of town. But Rempis has been playing tirelessly for years, either as leader or co-collaborator, in a variety of great groups such as Triage, the Rempis/Daisy Duo, the Dave Rempis Quartet, the brand-new Engines, and the Rempis Percussion Quartet, an all-improv band whose debut studio effort, Rip Tear Crunch (482 Music, 2006), is one of the year's best—and most bracing—releases. I met with Rempis at a coffee shop in Chicago's Andersonville neighborhood during a rare hour in his life when he was not rehearsing, recording, curating or gigging. About all those activities, read on.

All About Jazz: I want to ask about all of the bands you're in, especially the ones you lead. Your newest band on record—I think the Engines are your just plain newest band—is the Rempis Percussion Quartet. This band recently released its debut CD, Rip Tear Crunch, on 482 Music. This is a group consisting of you, Tim Daisy and Frank Rosaly on drums and Anton Hatwich on bass. Before we get into the individual players or the music itself, let's just talk about the configuration, the concept of this group. You obviously wanted a band with only one horn and double percussion that was devoted to pretty much total improvisation. What inspired putting it together?

Dave Rempis: I think in a lot of ways it was just the musicians in the group and the way they play together. Tim and Frank, in particular, have a really unique relationship as percussionists. And I've always been interested in percussion music; in college I spent a year in Ghana studying West African music and ethnomusicology. In some ways, perhaps, I was looking to recreate some of the percussion ensembles that I'd heard there, so having two drummers sort of replicates that to some degree. So I think that's what we were going for initially.

AAJ: The first musician I'm going to ask about is so much more than one of the drummers in this band and on this record. That's Tim Daisy, who you play with in so many groups, both your own bands and in the Vandermark 5. Tim's really a huge collaborator of yours, so tell me about him. What do you like about playing with him and what does he add to the bands you lead?

DR: Tim and I have been working together since about 1997. The year I graduated from college, I started bartending at a club called the Bop Shop, the old Chicago jazz club. Tim was doing a weekly gig there and coming a lot for the weekly jam session on Tuesday nights, so I would see him a couple times a week, and we got to know each other and started playing together a lot. We've basically been working together regularly ever since in all these different projects, so I feel we've sort of developed this musical understanding or musical interrelationship. I think my favorite part about it is that Tim won't put up with any of my crap [laughing]. He knows my playing far too well and won't let me fall back on clichés. If I do stuff like that, I'm going to hear about it from him! So it's a really beneficial thing for me, in the sense that he keeps pushing me a lot, even though there is also this kind of shared understanding or shared development in regards to the music.

AAJ: Then there's Anton Hatwich on bass and Frank Rosaly on the other kit. Tell me about their role in this music.

DR: As far as roles go, I would say Anton is kind of the middleman between me and the two drummers; he's the anchor of the group. He's sort of steering things—I guess that makes him the rudder. He's really the one who's steering things over the long haul, since most of the things we do are long improvisations. I really feel like it's been his role to mediate between us and negotiate between where I'm pushing things and where the drummers are pushing things.

As for Frank, I feel like he and Tim have, as I've said before, this very interesting way of playing together for two drummers, where they aren't occupying the same space—which is really unusual for two drummers. I think it's something that they're able to do because they're both really sensitive musicians and because they have really different playing styles. So in a way, I think we're all equal partners in the same unit, but we do occupy different roles.

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