Ches Smith and his quartet release the album “Interpret It Well”
“Act it well,” reads the script text in Raymond Pettibon’s mysteriously evocative drawing. A few thick black ink strokes describe an enigmatic landscape – the telephone poles, the railway line and the building in the distance seem obvious enough as markers of desolation, but the swirl of lines on the horizon is more ambiguous. Steam from an approaching train? A tornado approaching? Hope or fear, connection or destruction, it all depends on the interpretation.
It’s a fitting choice of cover for drummer/vibraphonist/composer Ches Smith, whose haunting new album Interpret It Well borrows Pettibon’s three-word prompt as both title and instruction, for bandmates and listeners alike. The album, which will be released May 6, 2022 via Pyroclastic Records, is his second featuring keyboardist Craig Taborn and violist Mat Maneri, the highly anticipated sequel to the trio’s acclaimed 2016 release The Bell. This time the band becomes a quartet with the addition of master guitarist Bill Frisell, whose contributions bring additional depth, space and texture to a band already rich in all three qualities.
It was this feeling of openness and exploration, in fact, that intrigued Frisell in the first place. The guitarist attended a Ches Smith Trio concert at the end of 2018, after which he contacted the drummer to ask him about the compositions. “Bill was very kind to the gig—enthusiastic, actually,” Smith recalled. “He told me he thought the tracks were accessible but challenging at the same time. There’s something about the way Craig, Mat and I play together, where we extrapolate to the max but the music feels like the tracks. So I thought Bill might be interested in playing them with us.”
It took over a year for the schedules to line up, but Frisell was finally able to join the trio for a performance in early 2020. The combination immediately gelled – “Bill felt like a natural part of the band,” Smith wrote in his liner notes. – but everyone’s time constraints meant that a recording with all four would prove almost impossible to book.
Everyone knows what’s next – the pandemic happened, and suddenly time was all everyone had. Smith reworked their compositions with the newly forged quartet in mind, and the band hit the studio in October when life began to return to some semblance of normality (for the first time, at least).
The results are absolutely stunning. As he did for the trio’s incarnation on The Bell, Smith writes minimal but indelible compositions; skeletal enough to allow these remarkable improvisers to stroll through deep space, yet so lively that the central image never gets lost amid the bold embellishments.
Which brings us back to Pettibon’s drawing – what Smith’s music shares with the artist’s work is this idea of a distinctive landscape evoked with a few sketchy lines, with vast expanses of mystery left in the spaces between. “There are definitely peak moments on this record,” Smith says. “But when I think about the music in my head, it’s pretty minimal. I like a lot of music where nothing seems to be happening.”
This may be true of the music on Interpret It Well in general terms, but listen closely and there’s a lot going on just below the deceptively placid surface. The album ends with “Trapped” and “Deppart” (“Trapped” spelled backwards), two alternate versions of the same brief piece, a haunting, repetitive melody that slowly increases in power one voice at a time. . “It’s one of the most minimal things I’ve ever written,” Smith says. “It’s a bar, a melody and a chord all in one, and people can approach it any way they want.”
The title track begins with Smith’s hesitant, questioning vibraphone, the other voices gradually gathering around him like a deepening fog. The image eventually comes into focus to give way to Taborn’s stammering and restless solo, which ushers in the urgent and ferocious final section. The piece has also inspired artists outside the group – artist/filmmaker Frank Heath, whose works have been described as “poetic interventions in systems of communication, information and understanding”, has created a new film for accompany “Interpret It Well.” The piece will be available on May 6 via the Ches Smith and Pyroclastic sites.
Frisell contributes a large solitary intro to “Mixed Metaphor”, soon matched with Maneri’s desperate tilt. Smith (on vibes) and Taborn then take over for a labyrinthine duet, eventually leading to a spiraling vamp. The sparse “Morbid” is a ballad of sorts, an elegy unfolding at a painfully slow pace, basking in the evanescent sound as all four take care not to shatter the delightfully delicate atmosphere. “Clear Major” takes on a more punchy tone, starting with Taborn’s insistent grounds. The piece is a three-part suite, the first volley section followed by the wavering rhythms of the middle and the finely woven lines of the finale – each movement separated by boisterous improvisations that deconstruct the composition in order to reconstruct it anew. The complex “I Need More” unfolds at a brisk pace and full of tension, finally exploding in Frisell’s cutting and searing solo.
Interpretation is at the heart of Ches Smith’s compositional approach, and here it yields absolutely stunning results. “Bill, Mat, and Craig can all turn the whole thing in a new direction in no time by playing a phrase,” Smith says. “What I love about this band is how over time they will all change their parts – Craig adding harmony or Mat sprucing up the written material to keep it fresh. I played with it a lot. the two of them over the years. , but the music is different every time. And I know Bill plays great, but he’s constantly surprised me. Interpret It Well is really my way of cheering them on – that might be the creed tacitness of the group.
The 2021 release of his voodoo-inspired project We All Break, Path of Seven Colours, was named Best Jazz Album of the Year by The Guardian and ranked No. 7 among all releases of the year in the International Jazz Critics’ Poll 2021. Originally from Sacramento, California, Ches Smith is a New York City-based drummer, percussionist and composer. He has collaborated with a host of artists on many stages since the early 2000s, including Marc Ribot, Tim Berne, John Zorn, Darius Jones, David Torn, John Tchicai, Nels Cline, Mary Halvorson, Trevor Dunn, Terry Riley , Kris Davis, Dave Holland, Secret Chiefs 3, Xiu Xiu, Good for Cows, Theory of Ruin, and Mr. Bungle, among others. He has nine records to his name as a bandleader that showcase his songwriting and ensemble curation, and is an avid student of Haitian Vodou drumming, performing in religious and folk contexts in New York and Haiti in the course of the last decade.
Photo credits: Kesler Pierre