ballister: the sound of sculpted energy

dave rempis.

Given the number of jazz and improvised music groups Dave Rempis leads (his website lists nine), one might wonder how sound and intent differ when it comes to Ballister, the free jazz power trio the Chicago saxophonist returns to Lexington with for a WRFL-FM sponsored Outside the Spotlight concert on Monday.

The sound? That’s readily apparent when listening to “Slag,” one of the two new Ballister recordings released this year (the other is the vinyl-only Belgian album “Low Level Stink”). The music is alternately immediate and aggressive. It’s sparse and spacious one moment and thunderously textured the next. On “Gusiarme,” the second of three extended improvised pieces making up “Slag,” Rempis, cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love let the music drop to a bare scratch of a solo sax whisper before building to a full, abstract trio assault.

“I think the three of us are often trying to sculpt energy in this group, if that makes sense,” Remps said. “The sort of in-your-face nature of the band and the reputation we’ve gotten in doing that makes sense to us. All three of us throw ourselves very fully into the music. Part of it, for me, is definitely the physicality of that, of really pushing one’s self to extremes and limits just to see what can come out of that. That’s one thing this group tends to explore a bit more than some of my other groups.”

But what of the intent behind the music? That’s where Rempis says Ballister and his other ensembles – which includes Gunwale, the Rempis Percussion Quartet, Rempis/Johnston/Ochs and separate duos with drummers Tim Daisy and Frank Rosaly, all of which have played Outside the Spotlight concerts here over the past decade – are largely on the same page.

“I don’t think that’s any different. The intent in the free improvised context is generally about communication and trying to create, basically, a group sound that flows together and incorporates the contributions of each of the individual musicians into a larger whole. We want to feel like a band as opposed to three people just trying to figure something out onstage.

“In terms of how it’s different from the other projects, I don’t know. I think a lot of the groups I’ve put together are based on mutual affinities between the musicians. I’m more interested in that and how the personalities come together rather than in trying to figure out, on a musical level, how this is different from that.”

To that end, Rempis is filled with praise for Lonberg-Holm and Nilssen-Love, musicians he was collaborating with long before Ballister came together in 2009. The saxophonist cited not only their individual performance stamina and sense of musical invention, but their ability in helping to define a group spirit strong enough to fortify a sound built upon improvisation.

“Paal is a limitless source of ideas and energy, both onstage and off. He’s so dedicated to music and art and ideas and is so committed to every different situation I’ve worked with him in. That’s really inspiring, especially considering he’s somebody who’s playing 250 to 300 concerts a year with probably 30 different groups. It’s really amazing that he can sustain such a high level of commitment, interest and engagement.

“Fred is a big part of what makes the group so interesting. He can play the role of a bass player and interact with Paal directly. He can play the role of a guitar player and add a lot of color to things. He can play the role of an electronic artist by placing noise and effects in the music as a palette for us to play against.”

Ultimately, what fuels Ballister is the same unified drive and meshing of personalities that sustain any band in any style. The improvised nature of the resulting trio sound makes its music distinctive, but a cohesive group spirit, not to mention an underlying friendship, is what continues to drive Ballister.

“Honestly, a lot of this music, for me, is based on personalities and the way people interact, not just as musicians but as people. In this band, there is very much a group mentality. Sitting in the van with these guys during the day, talking with them and getting their perspective on things, is incredible. These are people who are really well traveled and have played with so many different musicians. I learned so much from these guys. I really think we have a friendship and an understanding of each other that’s very brotherly.”

Ballister performs at 7 p.m. Oct.2 at the John Jacobs Niles Gallery and Center for American Music, University of Kentucky (inside the Lucille Little Fine Arts Library). Admission is free. For more information, go to daverempis.com/ballister-1



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