Essential New Music: The Rempis Percussion Quartet’s “Harvesters”

Dave Rempis has been an essential figure on Chicago’s improvised music scene for more than a quarter century. But while his contributions are enduring, they aren’t fixed. Early on, he was part of a cohort of musicians who moved to the city in order to add their voices to a growing musical community that nurtured new talent, but also projected an international outlook.

At age 22 and fresh out of college, Rempis joined the Vandermark 5, to which he contributed high-energy, instrumental versatility (he plays alto, tenor and baritone saxophones) and a readiness to confront any challenge put before him. By the time he founded the Rempis Percussion Quartet in 2004, the saxophonist had already established himself as a concert organizer and bandleader as well as a stalwart side person. Nowadays, he’s an instigator for change and growth, shaping the aesthetics of festivals that point where the music is going next and forging new connections with musicians in other cities. 

But Rempis doesn’t do so at the expense of old connections. The two-CD Harvesters testifies to his ability grow within enduring creative relationships. In its early years, the RPQ’s combination of unfurling, improvised melodies and dense, surging rhythms made it one of the city’s most reliably exciting concert tickets. Since 2009, when Norwegian bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten joined Rempis and founding drummers Tim Daisy and Frank Rosaly to form the lineup that persists to this day, they’ve shifted scenes from a frequently gigging hometown combo to one that gets together on the road, since there’s always at least one member living at least a thousand miles from Chicago.

Harvesters, their 11th release, was recorded during a week-long French tour. “Everything Happens To You,” the tumultuous 29-minute improvisation that opens the album’s first disc, is drawn from the RPQ’s first night playing together in four years (no thanks, COVID), but both its peaking energy and intuitive, mercurial shifts of tone and attack attest to the quartet’s bond. There’s no rusty chops, no blown cues, just a mind-meld so astute that the progress of its spontaneously generated sounds feels inevitable. If you’ve been wondering if the band still has it, wonder no more.

But the virtue of time-forged cohesion can also be a pitfall; for this kind of music to sustain its flame, it has to shed its habits. So, for the first time ever on record, there’s a guest on an RPQ record. French trumpeter Jean-Luc Cappozzo brings an instant change to the music, which becomes more layered and spacious, forgoing momentum in favor of inward-looking exploration. More than half of the second disc was recorded without an audience, the first time since 2010 that the group has made an album without a crowd to cheer it on. The deliberate, exploratory “Little Fascists” lingers long over sparse cymbal exchanges, charged bowing and Rempis’ elongated, melancholy tones; it’s one of the quietest things the group has ever done, but no less compelling. On Harvesters, the Rempis Percussion Quartet proves its ability to travel new paths as decisively and productively as the familiar avenues of home.

—Bill Meyer