Ballister – Slag (2017)

Slag is the sixth release from Ballister and was recorded live at the renowned Café Oto in London. This recording captures all that is great about free and improvised playing. This is rocking free form which brings energy and life to jazz music.

The publicity material notes that “the trio’s rhythmic drive drags the listener along face first, at times with flat-out abandon, and at times in lurches and spurts,” and this just about sums it up. Here, leader Dave Rempis and his fellow Ballister bandmates have unleashed a blistering album which completely engages from the opening catatonic fanfare to the dissonant final phrases.

Slag is comprised of three tracks, with each well over 15 minutes long. But the length is no where near as important as the music and this album is something of an epitome of what makes improvisation great: that collaboration, communication and intrinsic listening to each other which is so evident among these musicians. The inventiveness and strength of the drumming, the dexterity, single mindedness of the sax playing and the steadfast, unrelenting texture provided from the cello and electronics combine to make this an almost perfect free form listen.

In the opening track, “Fauchard,” there is an immediate and positive vibe established by the relentless, frenetic energy of the saxophone over the driving, non-stop rhythmic support from percussion and bass. Layer over layer, this is almost pure energy, unleashed, unmasked. This track is just over 23 minutes long, but it passes as if in an instant, so engrossing is the playing. In the middle section, the layers fall away to reveal drums and sax in agreement over a calypso intervention – and that is allowed for just a tad before the cello takes over the responses and the conversation is now between sax and strings, suddenly gentle, the sax manically reacting to the quiet persuasiveness of the strings. Then, the percussion is added again and everyone agrees quiet is no good and the pace and tempo is picked up again – building to the crashing, free form finale to the track. Absolutely lovely.

“Guisarme” is set in motion by drums and bass with open texture woven before the sax fills in the musical gaps. Completely nuts in places and musically excellent, there is a middle section which is sax-led at first but then the drums come in and meld with the sax, but push and push, forcing the playing up, up and out of this world. Definitely the highlight track of Ballister’s Slag, with superlative playing from all the musicians, especially the drums. It ends on a distinctly rocking note.

“Glaive” opens with cello and percussion, the cello creating rasping, raking scrapes and also beautiful open-bowed notes slung in there for contrast. Sax and drums support initially, before the sax sets more of a theme, under which the strings continue to writhe and the drums adds a contrapuntal beat which ties the whole together – then eventually settles into a steady rhythm which reins the others in. This is then worked and created into a secondary thematic section where the sax is worked at varying speeds – all of them fast – and the combination creates patterns, color and sounds that bounce off the ceiling. This track is gorgeous.

Ballister are well honed, supreme in their delivery of the musical message and it helps that each of the three players is a stalwart player in their own right. Paal Nilssen-Love brings to drumming something extra and a strength and understanding rarely found. Yet, just as you feel the drums are in control, the sax over blows and takes the reins, followed in many parts by the cello. Each musician in Ballister is in control, yet at the same time part of a tightly knit unit in close communication. Each is given space, a time to express and at times they also support the others, residing in the background before exploding with renewed energy. The sax playing is totally out of this world and the way Dave Rempis works his registers and key changes is astounding.

Slag holds many treasures, revealed as the music progresses and with every listen new gems are discovered: little nuances, new lines working underneath. The fact the album was recorded live makes it all the more wondrous as there is no contrivance, no technical wizardry. It is little wonder given the credence of the players. Cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm was a student of Anthony Braxton, Morton Feldman, Bunita Marcus and Pauline Oliveros, and has been key in projects including his Valentine Trio and the Lightbox Orchestra. He has played with Joe McPhee, Peter Brotzmann, Ken Vandermark, John Butcher and Mats Gustaffson, to name just a very few. Nilssen-Love is one of the key drummers of this time and needs little introduction. He has played Brotzmann, Vandermark and just about every name in improvised jazz and has been part of the free jazz scene for many years.

Dave Rempis is a Chicago-based saxophone player renowned as leader and member of ensembles including the Rempis Percussion Quartet, Rempis/Abrams/Ra, Gunwale, the Engines, Wheelhouse, the Rempis/Daisy Duo and Ballister, of course. He was a member of fellow Chicagoan Ken Vandermark’s the Vandermark Five, and has worked with Vandermark in other projects including the Territory Band and Resonance Ensemble. His collaborations have included John Tchicai, Joe McPhee, Roscoe Mitchell, Peter Brotzmann, Fred Anderson, Hamid Drake, and Nels Cline, and he has been regularly named as a rising star in the alto and baritone saxophone categories in the Downbeat Critics Poll. Since 2002, he’s curated and produced a weekly series of jazz and improvised music at Chicago’s Elastic Arts Foundation.

Rempis was also a co-founder of the musician/presenters collective Umbrella Music from 2006-14, producing the internationally renowned Umbrella Music Festival of jazz and improvised music. He gigs extensively. He founded Aerophonic Records, who will release Slag on February 7, 2017.

Whist their provenance is unparalleled, putting such accomplished players together is by no means a guarantee of excellence. In this case, however, it is. Ballister fit together and provide music which, whilst completely free flowing, has at its heart a set piece – that of communication and engagement with the sound.

This is free-form music – played that way and at its best. It is impossible to define exactly what makes one performance good and another great, but this combination of musicians engages, communicates and translates music which – though recorded live – is completely listenable in a home-listening format. Good or great? This certainly comes under the latter.

Sammy Stein

Sammy Stein

The Something Else! webzine, an accredited Google News affiliate, has been featured in The New York Times and NPR.com's A Blog Supreme, while our writers have also been published by USA Today, Jazz.com and UltimateClassicRock.com, among others. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Sammy Stein