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Ches Smith — Interpret It Well
(Bandcamp Pyroclastic Records, 2022, CD)

Ches Smith — Laugh Ash
(Pyroclastic Records PR 31, 2024, CD / DL)

by Jon Davis, Published 2024-05-17

Interpret It Well Cover artLaugh Ash Cover art

Drummer Ches Smith’s two most recent releases feature entirely different personnel, but there are definitely some stylistic factors in common. Interpret It Well (2022) features Bill Frisell (guitar), Craig Taborn (piano), and Mat Maneri (viola) along with Smith’s drums, percussion, and vibraphone on seven tracks, most of which are over ten minutes in length. Given the somewhat minimal instrumentation, much of the album is rather sparse, especially when the vibes are in play — with no overdubs, there’s a floating quality that’s enhanced by Smith’s dense harmonic sense. He does not favor simple blues-based chords on this music, and in fact, it’s often beside the point to try to analyze the music, as the compositions aren’t really built on chords but on melodic and harmonic lines. Frisell does seem to employ looping at times, with a repeating line behind some crazy soloing in the louder sections. For the longer tracks, things will go along very quietly, then burst into chaotic group interactions for the last minute or two. The title track and “Mixed Metaphor” follow this pattern exactly, while “Clear Major” and “I Need More” add a couple of iterations to the cycle. This album definitely requires attention from a listener, and takes its time about getting anywhere. Not for the impatient.

Laugh Ash (2023) presents a much larger ensemble, with Shahzad Ismaely (bass, keyboards), Michael Nicholas (cello), Oscar Noriega (clarinet), Anna Webber (flute), James Brandon Lewis (tenor sax), Nate Wooley (trumpet), Kyle Armbrust (viola), Jennifer Choi (violin), and Shara Lunon (voice, electronics). The nine tracks are much more concise, and the opener, “Minimalism,” jumps out of the gate with a gritty synthesizer pattern and aggressive drums; the strings and other instruments map out complex interactions, and Lunon’s spoken words mesh in perfectly. The synthesizer arpeggios do have a hint of Philip Glass to them, though the rest of it tends towards maximalism. “Remote Convivial” ventures into downright rocking territory, with an up-front bassline that’s more than a little funky, an electronic drum part that allows Smith to play vibes, and all sorts of beautiful chaos from the other instruments. The middle section might nominally be considered a tenor sax solo, but the strings are pretty busy with all manner of slides and scrapes, and the last half builds up from busy sequence, adding instruments in layers with interlocking parts. Lunon’s wordless vocals blend in with the woodwinds as another melodic line. Some of the other tracks get quieter, with really imaginative ensemble arrangements. I’m not always fond of spoken words with music (or with jazz vocals, for that matter), but Lunon’s contributions are reliably tasty, whether on spoken poetry or sweeping melodies. Ismaely’s bass work is consistently excellent, maintaining the propulsive energy even when the drums drop out. Armbrust and Choi have plenty of opportunities to go crazy, but every member of the group steps up to provide more than just the notes on the paper, managing to express themselves individually without upsetting the balance. Laugh Ash is a fascinating album, and easily my favorite jazz(-ish) release in recent memory.

Filed under: New releases, 2022 releases, 2024 releases

Related artist(s): Bill Frisell, Ches Smith / We All Break

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