Free-improv trio Ballister is a fire-breathing behemoth, but beneath the ferocity lies a sophisticated group of musicians | Concert Preview | Chicago Reader

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Free-improv trio Ballister is a fire-breathing behemoth, but beneath the ferocity lies a sophisticated group of musicians


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Few if any working improvised music ensembles hit the listener with as much blunt force and manic energy as Ballister, the trio of saxophonist Dave Rempis, cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love. In February the group dropped Slag (Aerophonic), a live recording of a coruscating performance at London’s Café Oto in 2015. The following month Ballister dropped a second album, Low Level Stink (Dropa Disc), a recording of a performance at Antwerp’s Oorstof concert series in March 2015. Both releases have the ability to clear out mental cobwebs like an industrial-strength fan, yet as much as their music is typified by frequent, ferocious, high-volume sallies, it would be unfair to reduce the group’s efforts to a single extreme. Passages where the ensemble cools its jets and navigates moments of repose are rare, but they make an impact; in the first moments of the improvisation that opens the second side of Low Level Stink, slow-moving, stuttering beats open space for sensual double stops from Lonberg-Holm and soulful alto pleading from Rempis that briefly evoke the music of Julius Hemphill with Abdul Wadud. Still, the real action tends to occur when Ballister’s operating at full-tilt, a chronic condition on Slag. Once the listener gets behind the trio’s sheer fury, a sense of exhilaration comes through. On the opening track, “Fauchard,” the cellist charges through the saxophonist’s fire-breathing while the drummer seems to translate and sonically magnify the rippling of water, focusing action on his snare—striking and rubbing some kind of metal object on his drum, and enhancing the sounds with cymbal patter. The piece opens even further as Lonberg-Holm provides upper-register cello bowing and slithering electronic noise and Rempis adds ghostly, snaking alto tones before momentum pushes the trio into another high-speed collision. Slag is no easy slog, but as with most Ballister music, surrender to the attack opens up a whole new world of sonic experience.   v

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