Tim Daisy doesn’t remember much about the first time he performed in Columbia.
“I got really drunk afterward,” he jokes.
It was August 2001, and the drummer was touring with an improv jazz outfit called Triage, a group he’d joined in Chicago with saxophonist Dave Rempis and bassist Jason Ajemian. Ross Taylor had booked the trio a show at Hunter-Gatherer on Main Street. Daisy made fast friends with one of the kitchen staff.
“There was a Croatian cook that used to like slivovitz,” a plum brandy native to the Balkans, Rempis remembers.
“I connected with him really well because of my half-Croatian roots,” Daisy laughs.
Neither Daisy nor Ajemian had performed in Columbia, but Rempis had stopped in town about two years earlier, playing as a sideman in Ken Vandermark’s acclaimed Vandermark 5 ensemble at New Brookland Tavern. There was a modest crowd at the gig — maybe 15 or 20 people, he recalls. But Triage was Rempis’ first working band, and this was his first time in the city as a bandleader.
“I had no idea what to expect bringing my own group there,” he says. “I just remember Hunter-Gatherer being totally packed. I mean, a lot of people were clearly not there for the music, but when we were playing, they all got totally into it. The vibe was great because people were drinking and having a good time, but they were also really focused on the music, which was a really great combination and brings life and energy to the music in a way that you don’t always get.
“In some of the bigger cities, where people are familiar with this music, it gets quiet and maybe more reverential or something, and this was not that at all. It was, like, people having a really good time listening to some music that they never heard anything like before and getting totally into it. There was so much energy and enthusiasm and excitement.”
“It was a real vibe,” Daisy assents. “There were people sitting right up front and actually paying attention to what we were doing. I was blown away by that. It wasn’t super-intellectual, sit-down-your-seat-and-be-quiet-and-just-analyze-it music. It was more — not a party, but people were absorbing the energy of the music.”
Nearly two decades later, Columbia has become an unlikely mecca for world-class free jazz. Daisy and Rempis, who remain critical loci in the Chicago experimental music scene, have, with Taylor’s help, been a conduit for many players who’ve made Columbia a regular touring stop — musicians such as Fred Lonberg-Holm, a member of Daisy’s Vox Arcana, and Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and Frank Rosaly, members of the Rempis Percussion Quartet. That quartet, which also features Daisy, is particularly connected to Columbia: Its third release, Hunter-Gatherers, was recorded at the Main Street brewpub in 2006. One of its cuts, split in two, is called “A Night at the Ranch”; the Ranch is what musicians call Taylor’s house.
Rempis and Daisy in particular credit the deep friendship that they and their peers have formed with Taylor as a driving force of what’s made the Columbia-Chicago connection so special.
“You know, we’ll do a two-week tour,” Rempis says, “but the only reason to do two weeks is so that we can figure out a geographic route to get to, like, Columbia and Montréal. Everything else is just filler in between.”
This week, Daisy and Rempis travel to Columbia to play two shows, the only dates on the trek.
Taylor’s been integral in keeping the concerts invigorating and fresh, too. Columbia’s a college town, so its potential audience for experimental music often ebbs and flows as classes matriculate and graduate. But the core audience for experimental music has grown, too. Daisy credits this to Taylor. That he keeps meeting new people and keeps building relationships — to potential audience members and to people who own art galleries and coffee shops who might be open to hosting avant-garde music — helps keep the vibe very much like that first Hunter-Gatherer show: reverent but rambunctious, and neither pretentious nor overintellectualized.
“I think just the fact that Ross doesn’t present this music in this sort of like delicate way,” Rempis says, “just frames the whole thing differently compared to the way experimental music often gets presented as the sort of special weird thing that you have to like approach with kid gloves or something. That helps keep that feeling [of the first concert] there.”
“Ross is completely invested in the music just as a promoter, and everyone likes him because he’s a really interesting person and super generous and works his ass off,” Daisy adds. “It’s like community outreach. He goes into the community. He’s like, ‘Hey, here’s some guy who works at a taco truck in West Columbia; he doesn’t know anything about experimental music, but I’m gonna tell him to come to the show because he might get something out of it.’ He’s exposing this music to people that might get something from it, and that is just valuable. I mean, I think he should get an award for doing that kind of work.”
Having an audience open to new musical possibilities is a big boon for boundary-pushers like Rempis and Daisy. As improvising musicians, Rempis and Daisy thrive on a psychic rapport that guides their lambent extemporizations. That they live in Chicago has been critical in developing that lingua franca, Daisy says, but their time in Columbia has helped hone it.
“Touring is really important to what we do,” Rempis says. “And so having those places to go that are bread-and-butter places — like, I know I’m going to go to Columbia and have a good show no matter what happens — I think it does really help develop the music further.”
“It reinforces what we do,” Daisy adds. “I’ve been doing this music for so many years that I sometimes feel like, ‘Why am I still trying to do this?’ And then you go to a city like Columbia and there’s a huge audience and they really respond and it reinforces like your decision to try to do this, to make creative music. It’s like, wow, this actually does matter.”
What: Dave Rempis and Tim Daisy (solo sets)
Where: Curiosity Coffee Bar, 2327 Main St.
When: Thursday, Oct 17, 7 p.m.
More: 803-357-2889, curiositycoffeebar.com
What: Rempis/Daisy Duo
Where: if ART Gallery, 1223 Lincoln St.
When: Friday, Oct. 18, 8:30 p.m.
More: 803-238-2351, ifartgallery.blogspot.com