When Ballister – the fearsome trio of Dave Rempis (saxophones), Fred Lonberg-Holm (cello) and Paal Nilssen-Love (drums) – performed in Antwerp in March of 2015, they played the kind of music you know some musicians are capable of, but rarely get to experience. It was a magnificent concert that grabbed you by the collar and took you for an adrenaline-fueled ride. There were some quieter moments when you could enjoy the view and take a breath, but the impression that lingered on was one of fearless exploration, tremendous sway and primal joy. Free music in its superlative form: adventurous, cohesive and forceful as a hand grenade.
"What is it exactly that distinguishes a superlative performance from a strong one? Often it will involve the exploration of new territory, an execution that finally meets the expectations, or an audience that goes wild. But usually it is also because all the individual pieces of the puzzle fall into place: there is a good vibe to start with, the acoustics and set-up are promising, the audience is engaged and the performance becomes one that balances individual and collective strengths, invention and moments of sheer excitement. It all happened when Ballister stormed De Studio on March 22nd of 2015. Spanish twosome Duot had already delivered a strong set when the trio walked into the stately room. The atmosphere was relaxed, but anticipation was in the air. Before this concert, Ballister already had six releases under its belt, and they had shown what a supple and fearsome unit they could be. As members of the Chicago community, reed player Dave Rempis and cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm had a long history together, but powerhouse drummer Paal Nilssen-Love was hardly a newcomer in their midst either, as he has been one of the key players in an international collaboration that started nearly two decades ago between the Windy City’s free jazz scene and their Scandinavian counterparts. Still, nothing prepared us for the set that Ballister delivered. It all started with an avalanche of sound that left the spectators (and probably also the musicians) no other option than to follow and try to keep up. If Greg Cohen once described a legendary concert as being dragged behind a Mack Truck, this was something similar. The concert had its mellower moments, when one or two of the members could step back for a while and let individual textures, nuance and ideas come to the foreground. But just like many concerts are remembered because of a particular moment or event, this was all about a display of collective invention. And balls. Rempis’s streaming input and sneaky flurries up and down the alto’s register meshed with Lonberg-Holm’s cello & electronics wizardry – verging from dirty bass-like growls to neurotic murmurs and screaming feedback – with a crackling tension, while Nilssen-Love provided the motor that kept driving things on and on, continually distributing new layers of sound of rhythms, a storm of metal and wood. The band’s fearless navigation showed they were perfectly attuned to each other’s energy and idiosyncrasies, remaining confident and indefatigable through powerful, voluminous passages and the more restrained, skittish ones. It was the kind of performance that steered you into the unknown, but offered diverse and colorful signposts along the way. There was the direct chugging of rock-‘n-roll, there was the triumphant singing of Rempis’ saxophone, the endless coloring of Lonberg-Holm, the rumble of Nilssen-Love (facing towards the right, as usual, as if he was checking if anyone behind him could keep up). It was heavy and energetic, indeed, but their force never became gratuitous, because even during its most bellicose moments, its multiple cooking finales, when they added another level of intensity, and another, the music kept dancing and singing its song of ecstasy. “On a vu quelque chose grandiose,” was the first thing the guy next to me said when we had slowly regained our breath afterwards. He was right." (Guy Peters, Enola)