Courtesy of Dave Rempis

Okka Disk


I've often wondered, having closely followed the music being created in the Windy City, what they are putting in the water. Having visited Chi-town, I can tell you this, there is a sense of community in Chicago that does not exist in others (and I lived in Manhattan for a year and Los Angeles for two decades). Chicago's younger improvisers (Tim Daisy, Jason Roebke) coexist with its legends (Fred Anderson, Von Freeman). In fact, there is a reverence that fuels the community that merits appreciation as a paradigm for other cities. From Chicago labels like Atavistic, to writers like John Corbett and Neil Tesser, to musicians that have tirelessly promoted the music within like Ken Vandermark and Fred Anderson, Chicago is everything that once was and ought to be once more (and the city also hasn't taken away the fundamental liberty of allowing someone the right to kill themselves by smoking indoors). Dave Rempis is Chicago. Working both as a member of The Vandermark 5 and also Triage, Rempis is a spoke in the Chicago wheel, but one just as significant as any other and we all should take notice. Folks - Dave Rempis, unedited and in his own words.

FRED JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.

DAVE REMPIS: As far as I can recall, I think it was watching The Muppets that got me started because I really liked the saxophone player in The Muppets band. I started playing when I was about eight and my brother was a couple of years older than me and he was playing clarinet. He got into it because we had a friend of the family who was a Greek clarinet player, who played in Greek wedding bands and stuff. He was playing and I was jealous and wanted to play something and saxophone just kind of appealed to me for whatever reason. That is how I started and I came up playing in all the high school bands and jazz bands and all that kind of stuff. I was playing as much as I possibly could, basically.

FJ: Past listening pleasures?

DAVE REMPIS: When I started playing, I probably wasn't really aware of what was going on other than Michael Jackson and The Police and 1983, basically. But once I got a little bit further into it, we would be playing big band arrangements in middle school jazz bands and stuff. That started turning me onto more jazz stuff and the first stuff, in particular, I remember listening to was a cassette that an uncle of mine made for me of Charlie Parker and John Coltrane's Live at Birdland. That is the first stuff that I remember sitting down and kind of thinking about. From there, once I started playing jazz in small group setting in high school, I started listening to all the big ones like Coltrane and Miles Davis and Monk and Mingus. It kind of branched out from there in terms of what I was listening to and I started getting more into Ornette and Dolphy and many other folks.

FJ: Dolphy and Ornette are not "out" for my ears, but Out to Lunch and Free Jazz are not everyone's cup of tea. That being said, it is one thing to listen to it and a whole other to play it.

DAVE REMPIS: As far as my own playing goes, I don't think I started trying to do music like that until probably well into college. In high school, I was playing a lot of standards. We did a lot of standards with this combo that I was playing with for basically four years while I was in high school. But we would also do these nice, obscure tunes that people would bring up, some Cedar Walton tunes or some more obscure Lee Morgan stuff. I originally went to college for music and tried to do jazz. I was at Northwestern in Chicago and the jazz program there was geared towards classical people who were looking to kind of have fun when they are not playing in their classical ensembles, so people weren't serious about it. It was really lame. People were focusing on just playing standards. That was as far as their vision went. To them, jazz was done in 1960. That was as progressive as it got, so I got pretty frustrated with that and got out of music really quickly and ended up majoring in anthropology and did a lot with ethnomusicology. I spent a year in Ghana in West Africa, studying percussion and ethnomusicology and came back my senior year in college and at that point, really got back into playing more and focused on playing. I had a quartet at that point and we were doing anything between Cage minimalist kind of stuff to free jazz and we hashed out a lot of ideas in that group and by the time we got out of college, I was really ready to begin to explore this stuff some more.

FJ: What was the first gig you landed?

DAVE REMPIS: Honestly, Fred, it was probably The Vandermark 5. Basically, I had gotten out of school and decided that I would spend my time practicing and really try to play and get my chops together and that kind of stuff. I think the fall of '97, which is the fall of after I graduated from college, I had seen Ken play any number of times and I went up to him at a show one time and talked to him and asked him about possibly taking some lessons. So we hooked up over that fall and I studied with him. We had two or three lessons together and I played some tapes for him about the stuff I had been working on with a few other groups and when Mars Williams left that band in February of '98, Ken was extremely busy and I think I was just one of the few people in town who he knew was doing that kind of music, and interested in doing it, and would likely be able to tour with them and meet a lot of the requirements that he wanted because he knew this band was something he was really serious about and he wanted to have the people in it to be able to commit to doing stuff. He knew I would be able to do that. I think it was a combination of sheer luck for me, just in the sense of Ken did not know that many people in town at the time who were doing that type of stuff. At this point, there is any number of people who could have filled that chair, but a lot of them weren't living in Chicago yet, so I kind of lucked out basically.

FJ: The V5 has been together seven years. You have been in the band for a handful and although Tim Daisy took over the drum chair from Tim Mulvenna, The 5 doesn't miss a beat.

DAVE REMPIS: Right, yeah, the transition was really smooth in a lot of ways between him and Tim Mulvenna. Right now, we are working on a lot of new material and as much as we know each other's playing and we have a pretty good feel for what might happen, there is always challenges.

FJ: Does The V5 have a book?

DAVE REMPIS: Yeah, at this point, it is probably forty tunes, forty to forty-five.

FJ: So it isn't Sun Ra.

DAVE REMPIS: No, no, we spend a fair amount of time editing out old material because we are always constantly working on new stuff. So to be able to keep everything up is pretty much impossible, unless you had more time to rehearse. And also, I think at some point, the band has explored a particular composition enough. I think Ken's focus has definitely shifted in terms of the kind of music he is writing and what he is interested in dealing with and at some point, some of the older compositions, we just sort of move on, basically. Outside of this context, I have a trio that I do a lot of the writing for. I have a quartet with Jim Baker on piano, a bass player named Jason Roebke, and Tim Daisy on drums. That group does totally open stuff. I don't write for it. We all kind of contribute to the improvisations.

FJ: The trio you are referring to is Triage.

DAVE REMPIS: Yeah, the band came together because Tim Daisy was one of the first people I met in Chicago after I got out of school. I was bartending at the time at a club called the Bop Shop, which was a really great jazz club that was around for fifteen years and I, unfortunately, was working there when it eventually closed. But I met Tim there in the fall of '97 and we started playing together and have been working together ever since. Triage came out of that and also there was another bass player named Gordon Lewis, who I had worked with all through college. I kind of put those two guys together and once again, it was sort of a matter of trying to hash out some ideas and as young players, begin to find our voices and stuff. We did many different kinds of material the first few years of the band, not just our own stuff, but tunes by Ornette, and Cherry, and Monk, and Dolphy, and Ayler, and Coltrane, and everybody else we were into. At some point, it progressed to the point where we felt we should be doing all our own music. Gordon, unfortunately, moved away from Chicago a few years ago, but Jason Ajemian came in in late 2000, 2001 and he fit really well into the band as far as his rhythmic concepts and any other stuff he was working on. I think it has worked out well.

FJ: What liberties does the trio form afford you?

DAVE REMPIS: The trio format, for me, is pretty interesting because it is so flexible. The arrangements can't be quite as complex, although, the more you get into it, you realize that there are actually a lot of possibilities with a trio. As far as improvising goes, there is many possibilities with just a few voices.

FJ: Give me the growth chart of the trio's first record, Premium Plastics (Solitaire) and its latest, Twenty Minute Clif (OkkaDisk).

DAVE REMPIS: As far as my own playing, I don't know. It is such a gradual process of learning, practicing, and playing that it is sort of tough to look back and think, "What was I doing then? What am I doing now?" I also, frankly, don't like listening to myself that much (laughing). I think the difference between the band's playing is basically, when we recorded Premium Plastics, we had been playing together for about two months with that lineup and all the material we were doing was pretty new. I do like that record, but I don't think we'd developed a real, cohesive group sound at that point. Whereas, we have worked a lot in the last couple of years and been lucky enough to do a couple of pretty long tours in the US and I think that really helped us get a voice as a band. I think the OkkaDisk record is really kind of a reflection on the sound that we have been working on, what we have been able to develop between the three of us with a lot of work and a lot of playing.

FJ: My overall perception of Chicago and the rapidly phenomenal growth of its improvisational community is because young musicians like yourself, Jason Roebke, Jason Ajemian, Tim Daisy, Eric Roth, Aram Shelton, Keefe Jackson, and Brian Dibblee are parlaying the doctrines from more experienced players like Ken Vandermark and Rob Mazurek and fueling the music forward.

DAVE REMPIS: Right, I think people of my generation, say mid-to-late twenties are really fortunate to come into the city when people like Ken and Kent Kessler and Jeb Bishop and Michael Zerang and Hamid Drake and all these other great musicians had really done a lot of work to get things moving again. We came in at a time when all that groundwork had been laid. Basically, we have been able to capitalize on that. I think, luckily, people haven't just slacked off. For example, there is always a venue issue in whatever city you're in, as far as places for people to play. At this point, the younger guys have basically opened up two new venues. One is called the Hungry Brain, which is doing a Sunday night music series that is really putting on some great music there and it is really turning into a nice venue for what we do. The other is a place called 3030, which is like a church space. That is a Thursday night series. That is basically two nights a week of music that is being booked and produced by younger guys. Beyond that, all the different groups that are working in town. Most of the musicians that are in my age group, I am twenty-eight, everybody has got like two or three groups that they are working with. So there has really been a proliferation of different bands coming together and a lot of crossbreeding because you have a pool of players of thirty people and they are all working together in many different contexts. I think it really has pushed everybody into playing as much as possible and writing as much as possible and just doing some basic hard work as far as getting their bands together and their sounds together and what they want to do artistically. To me, Tim Daisy, obviously, someone who I work with all the time is one of the best musicians that I have ever worked with and somebody who is moving forward at light speed as far as his abilities go. Dibblee is another person. We talked about him the other night. He is working really hard. He is writing for three different bands and playing with everybody in town, just getting a lot of shit together. Aram Shelton is a saxophone player in town, who is doing really nice music. He is getting into a lot of electronic stuff and sort of finding his own voice as far as developing the electronics and saxophone chops. Jason Roebke is another bass player, who I would try to let people know about. He is one of my favorite players in town. As far as the younger guys go, I will sing the praises of any of them because I think there is a lot of people really working hard out there. Those are a few names that come to mind right away. It is really nice that a bunch of records have come out in the last year or two with some of the younger Chicago guys. Roebke just had one come out with Rob Mazurek and Dylan van der Schyff and another with a trio of his that just came out on 482 Music with Tim Daisy and Aram Shelton. It is good to see people getting out there a little bit because what we do, for better or for worse, although it is primarily live music, we need to make records in order for it to get out there. Just in the last year or two is when all the people who have been working for three to five years have just begun to really get their names out a little bit more, which I think is good because there are some good stuff happening out there.

FJ: The younger musicians have a certain reverence for trailblazers like Von Freeman and Fred Anderson, not as revivals for work, but as mentors for the music.

DAVE REMPIS: Fred, anyone who is going after Von Freeman's gig, I wish them luck (laughing). I don't know if it is just a size issue or what. Chicago is a big city, but the longer I live there, the smaller I realize it is. With the jazz scene, there are many different factions and camps and people who tend to work together, but overall, I think people are extremely supportive of each other, even people who don't work together. We've been talking about the younger guys, but the older people in town set the model for it. Fred Anderson learned a long time ago that he was going to open his own club and present what he wants, play there when he wants, and do the kind of music he wants. He's totally dedicated to it, in terms of the leadership he has provided for generations of musicians. I think there is a serious model for younger people to look at in town and see a way that is viable to deal with some of the economic realities of the music. To keep playing as long as somebody like Fred is really inspiring. It is nice to have Von Freeman also. Those guys are really the patriarchs of what is going on in that town.

FJ: And the future?

DAVE REMPIS: We have another Vandermark 5 record coming out next spring. I am going in in late August, early September to record a quartet record with the quartet I mentioned, which will be out on 482 Music sometime next year. At this point, I have had maybe one record of my own come out in the last couple of years and I would like to step that up. I think there will be some more stuff coming out. Tim Daisy and I have a duo project that we have been working on for years. That is another thing that I would like to record.

Fred Jung is the Editor-In-Chief and is Wang Chunging tonight. Comments? Email Him