With these excellent albums, saxophonist Dave Rempis, an important musician-presenter in Chicago, launched his own Aerophonic label in June. The two-disc Phalanx captures wide-open live sets by the long-running Rempis Percussion Quartet featuring bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and dual drummers Tim Daisy and Frank Rosaly. Boss of the Plains marks the recording debut of Wheelhouse, a drummerless, chamber-style trio featuring vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz and bassist Nate McBride.
A onetime protégé of Ken Vandermark, with whom he still performs, Rempis is cut from the same cloth as that reed player in terms of his intense blowing style, his debt to European free-jazz pioneers like Peter Brötzmann and his ability to juggle several bands at once, including the Engines and Ballister. But Rempis has developed his own distinctive approach. That’s immediately evident on Boss of the Plains via its coolly atmospheric sound, long sustained tones and the saxophonist’s Ornette-like cries on alto.
Recorded in 2010, Boss of the Plains is an album of contours and spatial effects. But with Rempis’ urgent phrasing, Adasiewicz’s rippling lines and McBride’s tolling bass, the music can spring to life, as it does to boppish effect on “Song For.” As compelling as the interaction between the saxophonist and vibraphonist is, it would be a mistake to overlook the contribution of McBride, whose elegant deep tones, beautiful bowed lines and impeccable time both anchor the music and keep it afloat.
Phalanx, which pairs 2012 performances from Milwaukee and Antwerp, is the sixth recording by the Percussion Quartet. The songs are epic-the first of two Antwerp offerings runs 48 minutes-but with its continual sense of rhythmic and thematic renewal and its sheer propulsive drive, the music never wears out its welcome. As agile as it is rawboned, the band incorporates sounds ranging from the heated folk expression of Ethiopian saxophone legend Getatchew Mekurya to Latin accents to screech effects. The quartet takes its name from its use of two drummers, but Rempis contributes his own percussive effects by biting off notes and varying textures.
The standout piece is the artfully orchestrated “Croatalus Adamantooths”-a playful reference to the venomous pit viper Crotalus adamanteus. The song opens with a long, bluesy, unaccompanied solo by Håker Flaten, whose bass is so vividly captured you can hear the strings bend and snap. Entering on sinuous tenor, Rempis settles into a luxuriant ballad mode, gradually steps up into a trotting bop mode and gathers intensity. Halfway through, a lighter-than-air drum duet resets the scene for the saxophonist, whose spare voicings lead to a pouring out of energy and a nicely understated conclusion. This is one improvising group that does consistently see the forest for the trees.