The Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns began when Chicagoan sax player Dave Rempis was in the middle of a busy touring schedule, in Europe and the states, but like all of us, he had to improvise his way forward throughout these unsettling times. He dug live recordings from his extensive archive and released 15 albums, and soon found himself performing online solo concerts, an art he already documented on his debut solo album, «Lattice» (Aerophonic, 2017), and recorded these performances at his closet-sized practice space at Unity Lutheran Church in the Edgewater neighborhood of Chicago. The double-album «The Covid Tapes» is comprised of these solo performances and live outdoor performances in the summer and fall of 2020 at the Sugar Maple in Milwaukee and at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival, with old comrades – drummers Tim Daisy and Tyler Damon (of Kuzu Trio), cellist Tomeka Reid and double bass player Joshua Abrams, and with surprising and unfiltered background sounds.
The solo pieces are mostly standards or pieces that merit such popular recognition. The first album begins with a soulful, bluesy solo cover of Joe McPhee’s «Knox» (originally performed on McPhee’s iconic solo album, «Tenor», Hat hut, 1977). Rempis, like many of his generation, was deeply inspired by McPhee and still sees him as a mentor. Rempis recites gently the late South African sax player Dudu Pukwana’s moving ballad «B My Dear» (originally performed by The Blue Notes, «Legacy – Live in South Afrika 1964», Ogun, 1995). Jerome Kern’s «The Song Is You» closes the first album and Rempis dedicates it to Joe Segal, owner of the Jazz Showcase in Chicago. Rempis’ version demonstrates his love for the big, smoky sound of bebop sax players.
In between these solo performances, there are the extended live improvisations. «Toron» is a slow cooking duet with Daisy and it begins by exploring extended breathing and percussive techniques and patiently builds its tension until it gravitates into intense yet playful and swinging interplay. Rempis, Abrams and Damon sketch a haunting, introspective texture on «Skin and Bones», that enables Rempis to soar freely, while Abrams anchors the commotion and Damon colors it with unpredictable rhythmic patterns until this piece finds its right pulse.
The second album begins with an enchanting and emotional reading of Leonello Casuci’s «Just A Gigolo», described by Rempis as summing up his new life of «begging online». Rempis sings softly Bronislaw Kaper’s «On Green Dolphin St», performed here as a tribute to Von Freeman, whose hard bop sound and approach inspired young Rempis. The double album is concluded with another emotional reading, this time of Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington’s «Isfahan», dedicated to Rempis’ partner, Victor Wasserman, who likes to play the «Far East Suite» (Bluebird/RCA, 1967) on Saturday mornings while Rempis cooking brunch. In between these solo pieces, «In the Wild» is a beautiful, meditative improvisation with Reid and Abrams, that sounds as corresponding with the overwhelming swells of sound from a nearby chorus of cicadas. «Glitch» is an exotic duet with Damon who suggests seductive, Balkan and Middle-Eastern dance grooves that triggers Rempis to dive into his Greek roots and both Damon Rempis push this improvisation into intense and inspiring peaks.
2020 turned out to be a busy year for Rempis, despite the pandemic lockdowns, and Rempis, as a true artist, kept enriching his many artistic endeavors. «The Covid Tapes», with its reflexive nods to the past and its extended, free-improvised meditations, show that he is clearly ready for the new, still unsettling, times, and for more challenging adventures.
Dave Rempis (as, ts, bs), Tomeka Reid (c), Joshua Abrams (b), Tim Daisy (dr), Tyler Damon (dr)