sat 01/04/2023

Album: Ches Smith - Interpret It Well | reviews, news & interviews

Album: Ches Smith - Interpret It Well

Album: Ches Smith - Interpret It Well

Fine musicians who can make free improv sound as natural as breathing

Re-inventing minimalismDrawing by Raymond Pettibon (Pyroclastic Records)

Drummer/vibraphonist Ches Smith’s previous release on the Pyroclastic label could not be more different from this one.

Last year's Path of Seven Colors was well received: it was the Guardian’s 2021 jazz album of the year. That disc was an exploration of the Haïtian Vodou tradition through the prism of the contemporary New York jazz scene. We heard lots of busy pattering from a trio of tanbou drums, contrasted with the protean energy of saxophone hero Miguel Zenón bursting forth. Lovely stuff.

In Interpret It Well we are in a very different place: these pieces tend to emerge from the borders of silence, but comfortable and comforting they aren't. Dreamy, but mostly very dark, dangers and threats are lurking here. Try "Morbid" as the best expression of that eeriness. Nothing is ever quite as it seems.

Sacramento-born Ches Smith leaves space in his writing. As the album’s blurb has it: “[his compositions] are minimal but indelible; skeletal enough to allow these remarkable improvisers space to roam far afield yet so vivid that the core image is never lost amidst the daring embellishments.” Every track has an architecture, a flow, a journey, a story. 

As an example, “Clear Major” starts with a series of repeated rising perfect fourths from pianist Craig Taborn played pesante, as if constantly re-booting the opening of the second movement of Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. The obstinate repeating of a simple figure is a minimalist idea, but these improvisers take us into a world far removed from, say, Philip Glass. On the one hand there is complexity, wilful cacophony. As the piece evolves, the spirit of Charles Mingus freedom and dissent seems to hover over it. And yet again and again one can admire and be touched by the ability of all four of these musicians to make the pacing, the story-telling all feel as natural as breathing.

The four remarkable improvisers in this quartet are Craig Taborn (piano), the guitar icon that is Bill Frisell, Ches Smith himself and Matt Maneri (viola) (pictured right, from left, by Pierre Kesler).

For those in need of their fix of Bill Frisell in familiar territory, he doesn’t disappoint: it is there in the sweet melodicism of the beginning of “Mixed Metaphor”, or in the cat’s cradle of reverb harmony in the ending of “Clear Major”. And yet Frisell is a natural inhabitant of the New York free scene too; there are times when he sounds more like David Fiuczynski in full-on Screaming Headless Torsos mode, or giving us feral low thumps in the manner of Marc Ducret.

Craig Taborn might be the classic case of a musician whose solo perorations during the pandemic (such as ECM's Shadow Plays from last year) have brought him from goodness to greatness. At the heart of this group, his ability either to anchor a groove, or to do the opposite instil a sense of sleep-walking freedom is something very special.

A hat-tip to Pyroclastic, the label which Vancouver-born, New York/Boston-based pianist Kris Davis started in 2016, is necessary. Davis has explained exactly why she set up the imprint: “I launched Pyroclastic Records in hopes that I could grow a modest label to support a whole community within the creative music scene.” The insistent, unshakeable 5/4 groove after about nine minutes of “Mixed Metaphor leads me to an unavoidable yet necessary thought: Interpret it Well has surely turned “Mission Impossible” into mission accomplished.


The icon that is Bill Frisell doesn’t disappoint


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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