Dave Rempis, a saxophonist and Northwestern alum, has performed and recorded with improvising legends such as Roscoe Mitchell, Joe McPhee, Peter Brötzmann, Fred Anderson, and Hamid Drake. In addition to his eclectic musical career as a stalwart of Chicago’s thriving experimental music scene, Rempis runs his own record label (Aerophonic), is the board president of the non-profit arts venue/incubator Elastic Arts, and is an organizer of the annual Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago. We caught up on the phone during his brief Midwest tour this past week.
Many of the groups you play with have been long-time collaborations, the most obvious of which maybe being the Vandermark 5 (since 1998). How do the musical conversations of a group develop over time? How does the improvised vernacular grow and change?
Yeah, that’s kind of an essential linking point when you make (improvised music) bands like this. With groups that work in a compositional setting it’s like, okay you write a new group of compositions and that changes the sound of the band. With an improvising band, it’s different because nobody is writing the compositions and it becomes more of an evolution over time of how the group operates and works and interacts with one another. It’s a really organic thing, it’s not something that you can predict or control. And it also depends a lot from one group to another, based on what the individual musicians have been doing in their lives, musically, personally, professionally. I don’t know if you could say that there’s a particular process that unfolds every time with every band.
Does the group’s rapport influence the amount of preparation that goes into a performance? With long-time collaborators, does that level of comfort lead to more or less pre-show planning?
I think it’s a combination of both. With groups that I’ve been playing with for years, when we walk on stage, I know I can expect that everybody is going to be fully engaged in the improvisation. I don’t know what’s going to come out musically, but I do know that everybody is going to be paying attention to one another and dealing with each other in creative ways. We are always listening to different things and influenced by different things in our careers. And the people I work with are all accommodating to that, and are trying to deal with each other in new ways, basically. And that’s what keeps bands interesting. I know the people that I play with can play their instruments really well. So if I get on stage and all they do is play their instruments well, but it’s the same old stuff we’ve been playing for years, it’s not particularly interesting (laughs). That’s part of the challenge of pushing groups forward – dealing with those changes and not trying to just predetermine what your sound is and stick with that.
What about newer formations, such as the collaborations with Nate Wooley, Michael Zerang, or Elisabeth Harnik? What is the value/experience of these types of first time improvisatory encounters?
Some of those first time encounters can be some of the most exciting and revelatory ones because they’re so new and fresh. And there are encounters that happen once like that, and the next time you get together it doesn’t work. You just have to keep your sleeves rolled up and keep working on it because it’s a process–based art form, and that means you’ll have failures. I think any visual artist, writer, etc. can say the same thing.
You have played with improvised music legends like Roscoe Mitchell and Joe McPhee (among others) – what did you learn from how they approach and exist in the creative space? Were there particular things (or attitudes) that they demanded from you as a younger musician?
No, I wouldn’t say so. The thing that I think most improvising musicians want to hear from a new or younger collaborator is somebody who is really making an effort (whether they’re succeeding or not) to come up with some type of individual voice. There are plenty of good saxophone players who can sound like John Coltrane or whoever else. And I don’t think that’s particularly interesting, because Coltrane did that better than anybody ever will. I’m not saying you shouldn’t be familiar with it, or versed in it. But if somebody gets on stage and starts doing that in an improvised setting, forget about it (laughs). But if they get up and are really trying to do something new, whether they’re succeeding or not, even if there’s a glimmer of success, it’s positive.
As long as you keep pushing forward and keep working on your thing. This is a process-based art form and as long as you’re engaged in that process, it’s something you’re going to be engaged in for the rest of your life. It’s a musical practice, it’s a life practice, it’s an approach to life that people like Roscoe Mitchell and Joe McPhee have spent decades thinking about and refining and defining for themselves. And what those people respect in younger musicians is when people try to find a pathway of their own.
So, maybe just approaching that creative act from genuine and honest place?
Yeah, absolutely. And this isn’t specific to more modern improvised music; this is something very specific to jazz, since the beginning of the art form. People were expected and encouraged to develop their own voices. And that’s why Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins sound completely different. And they’re both incredible, when you hear them it’s difficult not to think ‘why would I play saxophone any different than that?’ I think at the higher level of jazz, that’s what people have been expected to pursue. And I think there’s issues with the academy that date back a long time, where you kind of have to codify things to justify your existence, to justify yourself as a professor or justify this as a study. If it’s always up in the air and always evolving, you can’t really justify your existence, or charge people x amount of dollars per year to come study it. But I do think that’s particular to the academy.
One thing that I’ve seen in the last 20 years in Chicago is a model of existence for both avant-garde musicians and people working in more traditional jazz. I feel like there’s been a lot more coming together of those scenes in the last 20 years, which is a really positive development because those things are helping to inform one another artistically but also structurally and in terms of how the music get presented and organized.
Out of curiosity, who are some musicians that you see bridging that gap?
Someone in the younger generation like Nick Mazzarella really bridges that gap incredibly well. Mike Reed is in between those two worlds in a lot of ways. Jeff Bradfield, Dana Hall, Clark Sommers. Greg (Ward) is an incredible example. An amazingly talented musician who can pretty much do anything. There’s an interesting moment happening right now, especially with Constellation, the Green Mill more and more so. Dave Jemilo, the owner there, has always been supportive of a lot of different types of music. Particularly in the last fifteen years or so he’s made some choices to bring in some more avant-garde type stuff. And that decision had has big ramifications in more straight ahead audiences and musicians paying more attention to some of that stuff.
That leads us perfectly into the next question! What level of engagement do you expect from your audiences? What (if anything) do you expect that they know about avant-garde jazz before entering the room?
I feel like most people who are open-minded who know nothing about jazz can come to a performance and hear something and be totally blown away by it if it’s a good performance. It happens that people hear something completely new to them inadvertently and are totally into it. Like right now I’m doing a Tuesday night residency at a bar in Logan called The Burlington. The first night we played there there was a rock show in the back room and we were playing in the front room. By the end of the night we poached about half of the rock crowd because people were like ‘What the hell is this? This is cool.’ I do like to think that it doesn’t require background information.
You run your own record label (Aerophonic) through which you release all of your projects. How does this model work for you? Do you think that these types of artist-run labels, which deal with distribution directly and allow for plenty of flexibility/creative control for the artist, are becoming more important in avant-garde jazz and experimental music?
Yeah, absolutely. It also mirrors what’s happening in the larger culture. Huge pop artists no longer depend on the media to interface with their fans, they do it directly through social media. That said, the music we do is not broadly based appealing music to a larger commercial audience. So for the most part we’re talking about selling records with numbers in the hundreds. For me, being able to actually reach all those folks directly. I mean – I’m the one on tour who’s going around the states or Europe, meeting fans, meeting the people who actually buy the records. It doesn’t make sense that a record label would be trying to leverage those already existing relationships between me and my small fan base. I already have access to those people. I feel like I should be the one reaching out to them, developing that relationship, keeping them interested in what I’m doing and keeping them updated on what I’m doing.
That makes sense. I will say that as a consumer and as a radio host, there is a certain curatorial association with particular record labels. Like I know when I see a new Clean Feed release, even if I’ve never heard of the musicians on the record, there’s a good chance I’ll be into it.
That’s one of the few labels out there that’s incredibly active in putting out really great stuff. I can’t think of any label nowadays putting out this kind of music that’s as active as they are. That’s really a great label.
You help to run Elastic Arts, a venue that functions as one of the primary meeting places and presenters of experimental music and art in Chicago. Elastic Arts is a non-profit – how does this organizational model feed and inform the institutions mission?
It’s one model of presenting this type of music in this day and age. The space itself actually started as a rehearsal space and recording studio for a group of about ten people. Around 1998, a number of them were Northwestern students, people who needed a place to rehearse and record their stuff. It kind of grew out of that. From the beginning there was the informal process of people having meetings weekly and talking about the space and how they wanted to use and develop it. By 2002, they made the decision to formally incorporate as a not-for-profit, which was a really great idea. It took quite some time to fully realize what that meant. In the last couple of years – my improvised music series at Elastic started fifteen years ago – we moved into a new space. I think that on its own has really energized the organization in a lot of different ways. I took over as board president about a year and a half ago and we have a really serious board of directors that are engaged in the organization and bring a lot of different skills to it. People like Michael Zerang, who has a lot of non-profit experience. Katinka Kleijn, who’s a cellist for the CSO is joining our board in April. We have a really fantastic group of people at the moment, and I think that is going to lead to some longer-term growth and sustainability for the space.
Being a not-for-profit makes it more difficult because there’s a process involved, there’s a board involved, and there are a lot of different voices that need to be heard. I think that really helps to strengthen the organization in the long term, because it’s not just one person’s vision, it’s the result of a careful process of discussion and deliberation and decision making.
Does the process of grant-writing (and the recognition of being awarded money) lead to more visibility for the type of music you’re putting on?
When it really comes down to it, the mission and the drive and the ideas behind the organization have to come from within. When you’re interacting with a foundation or a government entity, it’s really more about not taking ideas from them or playing to them. It’s about showcasing what you do, and convincing them that that is something worth putting money into. A lot of times people end up just chasing grant money and create programs that are going to win a grant. You have to have that mission and that idea before you start, and that has to inform everything about what you do. Ideally, it’s having a really strong vision and an intelligent staff that can present the meaning, ramifications, and value of that vision.
The focus of Elastic Arts has been providing a space for Chicago artists to develop their work, and to then take it out and present that to the world. In many ways, I think of us as an incubator space. At this point, particularly right now in Chicago, there’s an incredible younger generation of people interested in free improvisation, contemporary forms of music. There’s a really great pool of players, and I have to say that right now it’s really inspiring to do my series on Thursdays and see all these folks coming in with new ideas and new energy. Doing their own thing working with older peers. And that’s another thing about Chicago. Across the board in the arts, the city has that reputation as a place where people can come and develop their work.