This will be a big weekend for a Chicago saxophonist who has given more to the scene than he may be getting credit for.
On Friday and Saturday evenings, Dave Rempis will celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Rempis Percussion Quartet and the first anniversary of his Aerophonic Records label with performances at Constellation, on North Western Avenue. That the Percussion Quartet will share the marquee with the dynamic Sun Rooms band (featuring vibist Jason Adasiewicz, bassist Nate McBride and drummer Mike Reed) only heightens the importance of the occasion.
But there's much more to applaud from Rempis than those two anniversaries. Since 1998 he has been a prolific improviser, composer, bandleader and advocate for new music in Chicago. Though he may have been overshadowed a bit by a similarly hyperactive musician who happens to be a close friend and collaborator of his, MacArthur Fellowship winner Ken Vandermark, Rempis' contributions are difficult to overestimate.
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"Dave Rempis is one of the artists that I admire most on the contemporary scene," says Vandermark in an e-mail. "He is completely dedicated and disciplined in his approach to music, he works relentlessly to develop his own creative voice, and he's a tireless organizer, booking concerts in Chicago for other musicians on a weekly basis and putting his own groups on the road both at home and abroad. This is how the music moves forward, through the activity of innovative people with Dave's attitude and generosity."
Rempis has been a key player in nurturing Umbrella Music, which presents a busy calendar of events, most famously the annual Umbrella Music Festival. And he has been integral to developing bands such as The Engines, Ballister, Wheelhouse, Rempis/Rosaly Duo, Rempis/Daisy Duo and more. He also has contributed significantly to Vandermark's Territory Band and Resonance Ensemble, the Ingebrigt Haker Flaten Quintet and other groups.
But the Percussion Quartet that Rempis will be leading this weekend, with bassist Flaten and percussionists Frank Rosaly and Tim Daisy, holds particular meaning to the saxophonist, thanks to its longevity and more.
"We started in a loft space in Lakeview – a friend of mine had this great space on Broadway, on the third floor, and he would do these house party concerts," recalls Rempis of the band's impromptu beginnings in 2004.
"We did one of those … the concert went off great and this was immediately something I wanted to continue, with Tim and Frank as kind of the rhythmic basis of the band. The two of them are both great drummers on their own, but they're very different in terms of their approaches to the instrument and to improvising. But they had a way of locking into each other that's very complimentary, without stepping on each other's toes. It felt like a percussion section rather than two drummers competing for space in a band."
The Percussion Quartet's discography underscores the point, the band incorporating African and Afro-Latin rhythms to dramatic effect. Not that everyone who came to hear the band in the early days was pleased with what they encountered.
"People over the years have come to concerts and been disappointed that it wasn't a percussion quartet," says Rempis, meaning it was staffed not by four percussionists but by just two, plus Rempis' saxophone and Anthon Hatwich's bass (Flaten took over the bass spot in 2009).
"They wanted to hear a classical percussion quartet. But I think what we do really is try to duplicate that same type of energy and interaction with instruments that aren't normally thought of as percussion instruments."
The saxophone and bass, in other words, become part of the rhythmic fabric of the music, de-emphasizing melody.
As if Rempis didn't have enough to do touring the world in the aforementioned bands and others, last year he launched Aerophonic Records with "Phalanx," a double CD of live European performances by the Rempis Percussion Quartet.
Small record labels have a tendency to burn out their proprietors, but Rempis sounds undeterred.
"It's been fantastic," he says. "My goal with this is not to make money or a sell a million records, though if I could, that would be wonderful. My goal has been to break even on the releases and continue put out projects that people want.
"The number of people I've come into contact with directly (through the label) has been fantastic. They buy something from the web site, I send them a thank-you email, we chat a little – building that up has been incredibly rewarding."
Recordings such as "Naancore" from the Rempis/Marhaug Duo, "Aphelion" from Rempis/Abrams/Ra and "Boss of the Plains" from Wheelhouse attest to the steady pace of releases that Rempis has been able to maintain for Aerophonic.
Having grown up outside of Boston, Rempis came to the Chicago area to attend Northwestern University in 1993, but he found studying classical saxophone there "stifling," he notes on his web site (daverempis.com). Thus he "quickly ditched the music degree to pursue studies in anthropology and ethnomusicology." A year of studying African music and ethnomusicology at the International Centre for African Music and Dance at the University of Ghana, Legon, expanded his perspectives on rhythm and improvised music, and he graduated from Northwestern in 1997.
The following year Vandermark invited him to take the spot saxophonist Mars Williams had held in the Vandermark Five, and Rempis' career was aloft. Collaborations with major innovators such as Peter Brotzmann, Roscoe Mitchell, Fred Anderson, Paal Nilssen-Love, Joe McPhee, Axel Dorner and others have deepened his art and his resume.
How does he feel the scene has changed since he first became a part of it more than a decade-and-a-half ago?