Saxophonist Dave Rempis is one of Chicago's fieriest, most intense improvisers, whether he's forging connections with new collaborators or strengthening his intuitive bonds with old ones. With his seemingly boundless energy, he's one of the loudest horn men I've ever heard, but he's also capable of great sensitivity, not only playing with exquisite delicacy but also listening carefully and responding sensitively to his cohorts. Since February he's spent much of 2017 on the road, traveling the midwest, west coast, and deep south to hone his solo practice with a project he calls Lattice—he plans to release a solo album culled from tour recordings this fall on his own Aerophonic label.
Rempis plays the final concert of the Lattice project on Monday as part of the Option series at Experimental Sound Studio. After the set he'll be interviewed by Option cocurator Tim Daisy, a drummer who's collaborated extensively with him for many years.
Improv is definitely Rempis's thing, but he's also spent a lot of time playing tunes. He first made his name in Chicago after replacing Mars Williams in the Vandermark 5 in the late 90s, and he later joined composition-based combos such as the Engines and Ingebrigt Håker Flaten's quintet. One of my favorite such bands (albeit a criminally short-lived one) was a group Rempis led that featured saxophonist Greg Ward, bassist Nate McBride, and drummer Mike Reed playing free-jazz classics alongside material by brilliant South African bassist Johnny Dyani, a founding member of mixed-race ensemble the Blue Notes. After that group moved to Europe in the early 60s to escape apartheid, its members created dazzling music on their own while continuing to work together.
On Wednesday at the Fulton Street Collective, Rempis will lead a quartet to perform Dyani's wonderful 1978 album Song for Biko, recorded with singular trumpeter Don Cherry, saxophonist and fellow Blue Notes member Dudu Pukwana, and drummer Makaya Ntshoko. The concert is part of the always worthwhile Jazz Record Art Collective series, where new groups interpret classic and overlooked jazz recordings by playing them front to back.
Rempis has a long-standing interest in music from Africa. Though he moved to Chicago in 1993 to study classical saxophone at Northwestern University, he quickly switched his focus to anthropology and ethnomusicology, which led him to study in Ghana. The music that has evolved in South Africa is arguably even more robust and original: cycling patterns, ebullient melodies, and go-for-broke soloing combine in some of the most joyful songs I've ever heard. Song for Biko is a classic, blending the imperatives of kwela music with the loose melodic generosity of Ornette Coleman's famous quartet with Cherry.
Rempis has put together a terrific band to play Song for Biko, including trumpeter Russ Johnson, drummer Avreeayl Ra, and bassist Joshua Abrams, who definitely has an affinity for Dyani's masterfully soulful ostinato playing. Below you can listen to the album's mournful title track, a gorgeous ballad Dyani composed for influential anti-apartheid activist Stephen Biko. Biko died at age 30 in 1977 at the hands of South African authorities—after the last of his many arrests, they tortured him and inflicted fatal head injuries.