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Dave/RempisTomeka/ReidJoshua Abrams - Ithra Music Album Reviews

Three players with deep roots in Chicago’s contemporary jazz scene come together in an unusually empathetic exchange of ideas, where the gap between listening and reacting is practically nonexistent.

If you wanted to distill the last three decades of Chicago jazz down to a single disc, you could do worse than Ithra, a meeting of three formidable players on the scene: saxophonist Dave Rempis, cellist Tomeka Reid, and bassist Joshua Abrams. The tendons that connect the city’s jazz community to post-rock, folk, electronic music, and the avant-garde can be readily gleaned from their work. Of the three, Abrams might be the best known outside of the Windy City’s jazz circle: The tireless composer/improviser bridges numerous worlds, his churning bass work propelling everyone from the Roots and Tortoise in the 1990s to Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Bitchin Bajas in the 21st century. Reid, now based in New York City, has accompanied legends like Anthony Braxton and Roscoe Mitchell as well as thrilling new voices in jazz like flutist Nicole Mitchell and trumpeter Jaimie Branch.

Rempis may not be as well known outside Chicago, but he has long served as a nexus for the city’s influx of creative players. From his days on the frontline alongside Ken Vandermark’s feted Vandermark Five at the end of the ’90s to his long-running weekly improvised-music series, Rempis has nurtured and strengthened the bonds between players—both out-of-towners and locals—keeping the scene’s culture and community intact. Five years ago, he established the Aerophonic imprint in order to document his spontaneous encounters with any number of musicians, primarily at the Elastic Arts Foundation. As one fellow player has noted, Rempis’ work is part of a vital Chicago tradition of community-building: “He has become part of the continuum of self-starting musicians, and does it with lots of integrity and respect,” says the D.C. bassist Luke Stewart.

While the players had previously performed together in different iterations on Rempis’ label, this 53-minute set from December 2017 documents them as a trio. The eight pieces blend together so that it’s almost impossible to separate them, not unlike the empathetic interplay between Rempis’ horn, Reid’s cello, and Abrams’ bass. Unlike some improv dates involving a new configuration of players, there’s no sense of feeling one another out: Right from the start, on “Lerna,” they are already in dialogue, bow scrapes and pizzicato strings chasing after Rempis’ fluttering reeds. The gap between listening and reacting is so small so as to seem instantaneous. It also means that the mood can turn from wistful to bristling, melancholic to apprehensive.

As in her work with other ensembles, Reid’s cello serves as a fulcrum, able to provide rhythmic patterns as well as harmonize with the reeds, and she toggles between the two roles with aplomb. Try to track her movements and you’ll soon lose her in the crisscrossing lines. One moment she’s bowing in synchronization with Abrams, and the next she’s shadowing Rempis’ sax. Abrams is just as spry, replacing the pulsing, mesmerizing cyclical vamps of his Natural Information Society project with mercurial figures that pulse along with Reid’s cello on “Many Labors” and crackle with Rempis’ clacking keys elsewhere.

Whether the somber bowing that opens “Morphallaxis”—the longest piece here, and a highlight—comes from Abrams or Reid is hard to determine, but as the piece moves along, the strings quiver and cry. Rempis’ horn at first bobs along before prodding them into more pointillistic territory. In spontaneous composition, attuned improvisation, and extended technique explorations, Rempis, Reid and Abrams are all formidable players. But the trio also moves with ease, and while Ithra isn’t exactly playful, at times the musicians resemble children in a garden, focusing on one small aspect of the sound before drifting apart, making new discoveries, and then reconvening elsewhere. Pick virtually any point on the album and you’ll find them wholly immersed in the beauty of the moment.

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