At the onset of Smolder, one of three lengthy improvisations that make up Ballister's third album, Mi Casa Es en Fuego, the music begins as three separate entities. Or expressions. Or outbursts.
Dave Rempis' saxophone punctuation starts with a series of jabs and pops that eventually bounce about with an almost mischievous agitation. Countering that are the cello colors of Fred Lonberg-Holm that sound less like the product of an instrument usually thought of for its chamber-like qualities and more like the scratchy, electric disturbances of guitarist Marc Ribot. Underneath it all is Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love, whose playing can reflect frenzied immediacy one minute, brutal deconstruction the next and, in select passages, an icy calm. Throughout Smolder, he reveals all three tendencies to create a mood that lets the tune live up to it name while fanning the flames that inspired the album title.
After all, the English translation for Mi Casa Es en Fuego is My House Is on Fire.
"On a lot of levels, this band, to me, is kind of like a punk-rock, no-holds-barred kind of thing," said Rempis, who will perform with Ballister for an Outside the Spotlight concert at the University of Kentucky's John Jacob Niles Gallery, sponsored by WRFL-88.1 FM. "A lot of it is about energy in many ways. Paal is one of the most propulsive drummers I've ever worked with. And Fred just has this great kind of noise thing that he can do with an electronic setup on the cello. So in a lot of ways, it's just coming from that dive-in-headfirst type of energy."
Although thoroughly improvised — and, at times, brutish and fractured — the music of Ballister is far from musical anarchy. There is a noticeable ebb and flow to the playing, an obvious jazz sensibility to the way the three musicians interact and, quite often, a rhythmic undertow that continually changes the tone and temperament of the music.
"There is definitely a lot of rhythmic interaction happening all the time. I've described it as 'the feeling of moving forward while the carpet is being pulled out from under you.' We're all moving with these rhythms in a very forward kind of way. But they don't necessarily all lock in together, so it's kind of like this overlapping type of thing."
At the heart of Ballister, which issues its vinyl-only album Both Ends this month, is a strong personal and professional bond. Rempis, Lonberg-Holm and Nilssen-Love have all been regular visitors to Lexington over the past decade for Outside the Spotlight shows by numerous bands that bridge a fruitful Chicago free-jazz community with several European factions of like-minded improvisers.
Ballister is hardly the prime performance project for any of the three, either. This spring, Rempis will be balancing a string of Ballister dates with concerts alongside Boston pianist Pandelis Karayorgis, festival dates with three other trios that stretch from San Francisco to Finland, and a Quebec run with Audio One, a new ensemble led by Chicago composer/saxophonist Ken Vandermark (who returns to town for his own Outside the Spotlight concert on April 28). On top of all that, Rempis oversees a music label, Aerophonic Records, that is chronicling the music of his many band projects.
"That's actually been the most rewarding part of the last year for me: starting this record label. It's taking up a lot of time, for sure, but it's been incredibly rewarding.
"I feel like the musicians in this music really need to take responsibility for their careers at this point because there are just not too many people out there, whether it be labels or agents, who are promoting this music anymore. We have the capability to do all this. So far for me, it's been a huge pleasure to put out music that, artistically, I feel really strong about."