REMPIS/ PARKER/ FLATEN/ CUNNINGHAM : STRINGERS & STRUTS
Dave Rempis – alto/tenor/bari saxophone
Jeff Parker – guitar
Ingebrigt Håker Flaten – bass
Jeremy Cunningham – drums
Released December 1st, 2020 | CD | AR029
bandcamp download included with cd purchase
If you know Chicago jazz, you know the tendons beneath the surface run deep. This isn’t always apparent at first glance. Up above, it’s a broad-shouldered expanse where a multitude of players continue to weave specific sections on the tapestry of this ever-evolving art. And many of those sub-scenes have unique venues, audiences, and networks. But hang around late one night, and you’ll see players from far-flung corners, who may not ever work together, roll into local haunts like Elastic Arts and the Hungry Brain after their gigs to have a laugh and compare perspectives. Stringers and Struts is the audible personification of those deep tendons.
The collaborative quartet featured here consists of four musicians and bandleaders, all current or former Chicagoans, each of whom has carved out their own niche. Rempis is the “outsider” known for firebreathing bands like The Rempis Percussion Quartet, Ballister, and Kuzu. Cunningham, coming perhaps from the “straightest” side of the scene, first gained notoriety for his work with Marquis Hill’s Quintet. Since then, he’s worked regularly with a who’s who of the Chicago jazz world, culminating in 2019’s The Weather Up There, his second leader date which propelled him to international acclaim. Flaten tends to move between those extremes, blowing it out with free jazz power trio The Thing one night, contemporary jazz band Atomic the next, and the mish-mash grindcore/hip-hop/jazz of his own Young Mothers on another. And Parker, now a former Chicagoan after decamping to LA in 2013, is a musical chameleon who’s worked closely with a panoply of artists including Tortoise, Rob Mazurek, Fred Anderson, Nicole Mitchell, Joey DeFrancesco, and Meshell N’Degeocello. It’s his own records that put him in the top ranks of creative music though. 2003’s Like Coping on Delmark remains one of the most tuneful records from turn-of-the-century Chicago, and his releases in recent years – 2016’s The New Breed, and 2019’s Suite For Max Brown – eke out uncharted territory using a combination of composition, improvisation, sampling, and post-production in ways that are truly unprecedented.
So how did this group come together? Some late-night conversations at the bar between Rempis and Cunningham affirmed a mutual respect and shared sense of humor a few years back, and that led to some regular duo gigs. When they realized that mutual friends Parker and Flaten would be in town for the 2019 Chicago Jazz Festival, the opportunity to form a larger group was too good to miss. Parker and Cunningham have a long history together, as do Rempis, Parker, and Flaten, who all toured together in Flaten’s eponymous Chicago Quintet when he was a resident of the city in the late aught’s. With those links in mind, they arranged a Jazz Fest after-set at Elastic Arts in late August 2019, where this album was recorded.
And despite their stylistic differences in other settings, from the first notes of Stringers and Struts we hear a band that plays with commitment and cohesion. Each member brings out new facets of the others – Parker’s melodicism warms up Rempis’ tone and invites a new focus on contrapuntal motion in his playing, while Rempis draws some spiky shards of sound from Parker’s otherwise round-toned ax. Flaten’s drive propels Cunningham, and frees him up to play more impressionistically than he otherwise might. And Cunningham – who’s been known to fret that he’s a nail-biting novice to free improvisation – proves himself fully capable of taking on that new challenge using the same remarkable depth of musicality that he applies in more familiar contexts. Put these together and you end up with a record that draws lines between Grant Green’s Iron City, Ornette Coleman’s Body Meta, and Sonny Sharrock’s Ask the Ages.
So while these four may blow in from different corners of the weathervane, they meet in a place of respect with a deep commitment to listening, and to acknowledging and absorbing one another’s perspectives. It’s this willingness to keep their ears open over the course of a career that allows each of them to throw off new tendrils with the depth that we hear on Stringers and Struts. You’d be hard pressed to find another setting where such a collaboration could take place.