Calling Ballister a new band is both correct and misleading.
On one hand, it really is an unproven commodity, even within the fertile improvisational music scene of Chicago that has sent so much creative jazz to Lexington as part of the Outside the Spotlight Series. Its first album, in fact, hasn't even been officially released.
But the members of the trio — saxophonist Dave Rempis, cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love — are musical brethren who have played in the same bands or on the same concert bills with one another for years. It's just that it took a stateside visit by Nilssen-Love during spring 2009 to bring these jazz thrill-seekers together in a single group.
"It's been something we have been talking about for a while," said Rempis, who performs with Ballister on Tuesday at Collexion for the OTS series. "We have kind of worked together in various ad hoc contexts. I've been playing with Fred for a while in the Vandermark 5 (one of Chicago's leading improvisational music ensembles and a veteran of several OTS performances). Also, Fred and Paal have been playing together in the Tentet (Peter Brötzmann's Chicago Tentet — Brötzmann is another OTS alum) for several years.
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"So we have discussed the idea of a band for the three of us for some time and finally found the opportunity to get together when Paal was in town for a little while last year. We did a session just to see how it went, and it felt really, really good. So we decided to follow it up this year when Paal was back in Chicago. We made a recording up here at a club called The Hideout back in June. Now we have the chance to get into the music more deeply and see where the band can go. So the tour we're on, in many ways, is an experiment."
The album made at the Hideout performance is titled Bastard String and consists of three improvisational pieces, two of which are more than 30 minutes long. In many ways, it takes that long just for the trio's musical vocabulary to express itself.
Rempis establishes himself during volcanic free-jazz excursions on alto, tenor and soprano saxophone, especially during the unaccompanied passages from the album-opening Belt and Claw. Nilssen-Love echoes the trio's physical musicianship, balancing bits of fractured, dizzying swing with a brutish but spontaneously percussive charge. Lonberg-Holm, who will make his fifth OTS appearance in 11 months (all with different ensembles), offers a typically broad and redefined sound for the cello, from basslike counterpoint to blasts of abstract, electronically enhanced color.
"Playing with Fred is always a thrill," Rempis said. "Sitting down and talking with him is much like hearing him play. You hear this wellspring of ideas and energy. A conversation with him can go in a million different directions. It's the same onstage. He has such an ability to really pull anything out his hat.
"Paal is great, too. There are a lot of fantastic drummers that I have been lucky enough to work with over the years. Paal is simply one of the best drummers working in improvised music right now. He can really power a gig. But he also knows how to pare it back and play some very beautiful, subtle, almost minimalist stuff. So between him and Fred, this music can go anywhere."
Still, there is a sense of unpracticed order to the music of Ballister and many of today's more adventurous free jazz ensembles. To unfamiliar ears, the music might seem to have a random quality, with improvisational ideas generated and disposed of without any real sense of intent. That, Rempis emphasizes, is not what Ballister is about.
"That's actually a misconception about improvised music," he said. "To a lot of people, it's about just one idea being randomly spewed out. I think what is really going in the music is the development of an idea. That usually leads to a series of different approaches about how to develop that one initial thing.
"In a lot of this music, there is a narrative that is being followed. There's a flow. And, to me, that is one of the things that still relates what we do to jazz."