Flexible & Free: Dave Rempis' Ballister at Kerrytown Concert House


Ballister by Geert-Vandepoele

Locked-in: Ballister is a spontaneous trio whose music often still sounds composed. Photo by Geert Vandepoele.

Saxophonist Dave Rempis has fond memories of playing Ann Arbor over the years. The Chicago-based improviser and long-time member of renowned free jazz group The Vandermark 5 fondly recalls late-'90s gigs with locally grown and trained players, such as Colin Stetson, Stuart Bogie, and Matt Bauder.

But none were likely more memorable than a workshop for students at the University of Michigan School of Music, where Rempis had applied and been rejected a few years earlier.

"I totally flubbed my audition with a classical saxophone teacher, so he said, 'Why don't you go play for the jazz guy next door?'" Rempis says. "So, I went over there, and I'm not sure how well that went. I didn't get into the University of Michigan, and my first gig on tour with The Vandermark 5 was doing a workshop in the same professor's classroom. So that was my first paying gig out of college. I thought that was kind of funny."

After ditching classical sax for ethnomusicology at Northwestern University, Rempis dove into the Chicago music scene after graduation, where he became a vital part of not only its storied free jazz and improvisational music circles as a musician and presenter, but also indie rock community as an events coordinator and, eventually, business manager of the Pitchfork Music Festival.

Today Rempis plays with several improvisational music groups as well as solo, and he also serves as board president of the Elastic Arts Foundation and operations manager for the Hyde Park Jazz Festival. On Saturday, he returns to Kerrytown Concert House with Ballister, his hard-charging trio with cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love.

We spoke with the affable reedman by phone from Chicago, where, in addition to his music, he took the time to talk with us about "nerding out over spreadsheets," perpetual pre-show jitters, and the enduring work ethic of the late, great Fred Anderson].

Q: How did you get started in music?
A: I started playing when I was 8. My father’s Greek, and we had a family friend that played in Greek bands around town. I would see him play at weddings and stuff, and I was totally fascinated. My brother started playing clarinet pretty young, and as soon as he started that, I was like, “I want to play the saxophone.” In high school, I was lucky to play with a small jazz group at a local music school. A lot of kids were focusing on playing big-band charts and not a lot of improvising, but I really got the opportunity to play jazz tunes and improvise on them, which was an incredible puzzle. It was just a really interesting set of musical and other challenges, and I just totally got hooked on it.

Q: I read that you went to Northwestern to study music before switching to ethnomusicology.
A: I was young and I didn't know what I was getting into, so I applied for a classical saxophone program to get my technical chops together. As soon as I got there I realized this was the most soul-sucking thing I could possibly do to myself. Just hearing saxophone players in practice rooms for eight hours a day playing exercises without any musical conclusion. It was like gymnastics.

I was lucky my first semester to take a class with a musicologist who did a lot of work in Zimbabwe. He also wrote a big book on jazz improvisation. That class just kind of blew my mind. I was playing and maintaining my jazz interest, but by junior year of college, I decided to study in Ghana for a year in West Africa, which was totally incredible and very much connected to the interest I had in jazz.

Q: Out of college you were asked to join The Vandermark 5. How did that happen?
A: I'd met [bandleader] Ken [Vandermark] a few times, and when I got out of school I decided I wanted to play. My plan was to work a day job and practice as much as I could and see what kind of opportunities I could find around town. I went to a show at The Velvet Lounge one night, and I asked Ken if I could take some lessons with him on extended techniques he and others were doing. So I took a couple of lessons with him, and that fall, in 1997, Mars Williams decided to leave the band. Ken called me in November or December and said, "Mars is leaving the Five, and I'd like you to come audition for the band."

Q: Did you get a sense at that time that things were picking up there? It sounds like there was a lot of energy and excitement around that scene of music.
A: It was incredible. There had been so much happening in Chicago for a long time, and I think in the '80s a lot of the energy dissipated. But in the early '90s, there was sort of this convergence of forces. Ken is one of the people who really did a lot of work to build an infrastructure for the scene. He started this series at The Lunar Cabaret, and then he started The Empty Bottle series in 1995, and those things started to have a lot of resonance.

Around the same time, Fred Anderson had been running The Velvet Lounge for a while, but I think he was just running it as a bar and then eventually started doing music there in the early-mid '90s.

So this momentum started to happen, and it was a combination of local musicians doing more and people coming in from out of town. Fred [would] play at the Velvet all the time. I remember seeing Steve Lacy play down there with his trio, Milford Graves at The Empty Bottle, a lot of European improvisers at The Empty Bottle through its festival, Joe McPhee.

All these people started coming back to Chicago, and it was a regular occurrence in the late '90s that you can go see incredible people twice a week visiting from out of town. That helped really create this exchange with what was happening in Chicago and what was happening all over the world that is still sustained. Now it feels like it's been here a long time. We almost take it for granted. But at that point, it was something that was just emerging again, so there was a lot of excitement around it.

Q: I love that idea of Fred playing his own club a couple of times a week -- that you could just go and watch him play whenever you wanted.
A: Totally. You could go down the Velvet, and he'd be sitting there working the door. Somebody, it might have been Ken, wrote some liner notes about Fred sitting in on the second set with a band and then walking off stage to fill up the cigarette machine. That's still a work ethic and a mentality that informs the way a lot of venues here are run.

Q: How long were you working on Pitchfork Festival, and how did that come about?
A: I helped start it in 2005 and just left last fall. Mike Reed is a drummer in Chicago who founded the Pitchfork Music Festival. I started bartending right out of college, working at a small jazz club called the Bop Shop and then started working for a couple of different larger rock venues owned by the same company, so I’ve always kind of been involved in front of house type stuff in venues.

I had a lot of large concert concessions experience and had also worked a number of outdoor events for those folks. So when Mike started the festival, he asked me to come on as the concessions manager in the first year for what turned out to be a pretty large operation. The second year he split up with his partners on the event and asked me to come in and basically take over a lot of the logistical organizing type stuff on the event.

Q: Is logistics something you enjoy, or is it more about community enrichment?
Q: I guess kind of enjoy it. I’m a very detail-oriented person. I would love to just focus on music, but the stuff that goes into making sure music happens is a huge factor in making sure I and others have the opportunity to present our work. I do those things more out of necessity than desire, but at the same time, I can definitely nerd out over some spreadsheets.

That translates on a lot other levels. We’ve both been organizing jazz and improvised music events in Chicago for a long time. I’ve been booking a Thursday night series here at the Elastic Arts Foundation since 2002, where I'm now board president. We’re doing four-to-six concerts a week as a small not-for-profit venue without a bar.

Q: Being a working musician on the road, you probably get a lot of ideas about how to run a space like that.
A: Totally. I did a solo tour last spring and part of the idea was to work on solo material and approaches, but going on the road by myself, I was able to go to a lot of different places I wouldn’t take a band, much of it for financial reasons. I did 31 concerts in 27 cities in the States. There are so many things happening, and sharing that information and learning from other people about how they’re approaching this kind of stuff, about how they fund it, how they organize it, who’s doing it, all that kind of stuff is really valuable, and I think a big part of what we do as touring musicians is actually helping to create and sustain those networks.

Q: What sets Ballister apart from your other groups?
A: Part of what I like is the flexibility of it. In a way, it's the instrumentation and the skills of these particular musicians, and a lot of it comes down to Fred, who's a cellist who just has this incredibly wide palette. He can interact more like a bass player might, playing a vamp or something, or he can interact the way a guitar player might, playing more melodic things. He can interact the way an electronics musician might, with a lot of screeching noise-type stuff, and he's great at all those things.

Paal is somebody who's out playing 250 to 300 concerts a year on the road. I can't quite imagine living that life, but he's somebody who shows up to every single gig and is totally committed to it.

On a personal level, it's just a bunch of guys who really enjoy playing music and are really passionate about life and just put a lot of energy into the whole thing.

Q: What mindset does playing with those two put you in? What does it let you explore that you can't with other groups?
A: It can be a pretty loud group at times, and I'm really enjoying exploring those limits of how far can I push myself physically. That on its own can lead to new things musically. And in a lot of ways, it ties to the music I was interested in and studying. Ideas of spirit possession, in a way, for example. Or you listen to Coltrane in his later period, and he's so focused and energetic and pouring all this physicality into his instrument. That type of thing really stands out to me listening to it but also playing it, how that feels. It's almost like an athletic thing, to push yourself to these boundaries. I just think you get to new places by doing that.

Q: Is anything charted at all beforehand, even in a basic way? Some of the recordings have some very composed sounding parts.
A: It's all purely improvised. We've never written a chart or came up with a game plan of how we're gonna start or structure a piece or anything. It's all open.

To me, one of the "goals," so-to-speak, is to create music that sounds like music and doesn't just sound like three people playing together randomly. Improvised music that speaks to me does feel as composed as what you might say composed music sounds like. And that's what I think makes for a good performance is when that feeling is there, of, "We know where this is going." There's no question. If the musicians feel that question and aren't sure where it's going, then you hear that.

Q: Do you still have a feeling before you start, of, "OK, let's see what happens?"
A: Definitely. I get nervous right before I start, just in the sense of, "What are we gonna do? Is this gonna work?" You know, we don't have anything to fall back on. This could be a trainwreck (laughs). I think that fear never quite goes away, but then you get on stage and start playing and you realize, "Oh, no, it's gonna be OK."

Q: You started Aerophonic Records a few years ago with a vision to control your body of work and not use streaming services. How's that going and how are you feeling about it today?
A: It's a lot of work, but it's one of the best decisions I've ever made. It's allowed me in so many ways to connect with my audience. I have email conversations with the people who buy my records who live all around the world. There are so few labels at this point putting out this kind of music, it's really kind of a blessing to not have to wait for them to approve a project. As long as I'm able to plan out my schedule, I can release whatever I want, whenever I want. That's very liberating in terms of trying to coordinate schedules around when a band can tour, my own personal schedule, all that kind of stuff.

Q: How did the refugee benefit album you did come about and what was the response like?
A: [Pianist] Matt Piet called [drummer Tim Daisy and I] up to say, "Do you guys want to do a session?" in the fall of 2016, so we said, "Yeah, sure." It ended up being on the day after the election. All three of us were basically in a state of shellshock. We just got together to play, and afterward we said, "We should do something with this around inauguration time." We ended up doing a benefit for Planned Parenthood the Saturday after the inauguration. It was a really nice triple bill at Elastic Arts. The room was packed, and we raised a ton of money for Planned Parenthood, and the set just felt really great, and it tapped into the positive energy that day from the Women's March because the concert ended up being a kind of after party for that.

It just had a really special feeling to it. I think that's a great record, and I'm really proud of it, and we were able to raise about $500 for Refugee One, which is a local Chicago group that helps resettle people in the United States from various parts of the world.

Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer and a regular contributor to Concentrate Ann Arbor.

Dave Rempis' Ballister plays Kerrytown Concert House on Saturday, Sept. 30, 7:59 pm. For tickets and more info, visit kerrytownconcerthouse.com.