Qanaaq, a Quintet’s Journey

McPhee, Rempis, Reid, Lopez, Nilssen-LoveOf Things Beyond Thule, Vol. 1 (Aerophonic, 2020)

Of Things Beyond Thule Front Cover smallThis album is being released only on vinyl, in an edition of 350, with no other format or digital download planned. It might be because “Qanaaq,” the 37-minute quintet improvisation comprising both sides, has the feel of something special, one of those nights where the musicians hit the right resonant frequency and build something powerful.

“Thule” and “Qanaaq” are alternative names for the same city in Greenland, and maybe that small suggestion is what makes the music feel vast. The more intense segments aren’t full-bore blowouts, but a sustained, patient energy conjuring the awe of immense spaces.

In the mold of good long-form storytelling, “Qanaaq” flies through passages of both quiet and noise. The sound can be cozy, as in the intimate monologue that opens the piece. Dave Rempis on baritone sax (possibly also a touch of Joe McPhee on tenor sax) is backed there by restrained, persistent group undercurrent (Tomeka Reid on cello, Paal Nilsson-Love on drums, and Brandon Lopez on bass). It can also be energetic, as in the open groove later built by Nilsson-Love and Reid, putting an exclamation point on Side One.

What really sparkles, though, are the climactic final minutes. They start peacefully, with McPhee’s smoky monologue on tenor, but it’s when Nilsson Love jumps in — a moment of full conviction — that the grand expanse of an ending suddenly springs into shape.

Of Things Beyond Thule is part of a live set from 2018 — the first performance by this particular combination of skilled improvisers — and makes a fitting souvenir from an inspirational night.

Two from Aerophonic

Ballister [Rempis, Lonberg-Holm, Nilsson-Love] — Worse for the Wear (Aerophonic, 2014)

Wooley, Rempis, Niggenkemper, CorsanoFrom Wolves to Whales (Aerophonic, 2014)

Two new releases from Dave RempisAerophonic label place the Chicago-based saxophonist in different jazz-improv settings, both magnetic and full of energy. Both albums have their fast and slow parts, their quiet and loud parts, but the differences in personnel give each project a distinct atmosphere.

Ballister -- Worse for the WearBallister is the more forceful of the two, teaming Rempis with the noisy hands of percussionist Paal Nilssen-Love and the crunchy electric cello of Fred Lonberg-Holm.

The 21-minute “Fornax” is an unabashed frenzy, all flames and smoke from the first seconds. Lonberg-Holm’s amplified cello essentially fills the role of an electric guitar, helping to push the edgy sound, but the session stays red-lined even after he slips into acoustic mode to provide backing plucks to a Rempis/Nilssen-Love attack. Someone even adds a metal-like grumbly vocal. That’s all in the first five minutes.

The track does slow down, as you’d expect from a piece of that length, ending with a quiet crawl. The closing track, “Vulpecula,” is on the slower side as well — a darker, more gradual energy, inhabiting murky caverns rather than bustling cities. It’s energy jazz with a sinister air.

In between the two is “Scutum,” another high-energy piece, but a slimmer model. It’s got some exciting Nilssen-Love work on hi-hat (his jazz chops on the drum kit shine throughout the album) and a twangy bowed cello keeping the intensity up. Rempis enters shortly with ecstatic flares. It’s a terrific exercise in free jazz, and in the passages where the sound gets quieter, Rempis’ sax only gets more frenzied and eccentric.

wooley-wolvesThe quartet on From Wolves to Whales works into high-energy frenzies, too. But with Nate Wooley (trumpet) on board, there are also nods to lower-case improv, for moments of spacious contemplation. It’s a more expansive sound than Worse for the Wear.

“Slake” opens the album with whispered trumpet crinkles and takes its time building to a healthy boil, with Wooley shifting to quick-lipped and crisp playing. “Count Me Out” likewise starts out with Wooley’s quiet, airy sounds; this time, the band picks up with a restrained energy, building a conversation that culminates in dark, scowling form.

There’s an enjoyable sense of space to Rempis’ squawks and honks on “Serpent’s Tooth,” backed by Chris Corsano‘s insistent drumming and patient bass from Pascal Niggenkemper. It builds nicely from some unaccompanied warbling by Rempis, a first-principles statement that sets up a respectful, drawn-out jam as the other players follow suit. After a few minutes, Rempis blossoms into brighter free-jazz mode, opening up the piece.

Worse for the Wear and From Wolves to Whales have official release dates of Jan. 6, but you can get then now from Aerophonic.