Ches Smith and These Arches Hammered (CF 270)
Among the many notable creative improvising musicians currently based in New York, there are remarkably few whose purview includes significant collaborations with veterans of the fabled ‘80s and ‘90s Downtown scene. Ches Smith is one such artist, a powerful yet unassuming drummer whose resume includes impressive sideman work with Tim Berne and Marc Ribot, collaborations with contemporaries Mary Halvorson and Darius Jones, and membership in the avant rock bands Secret Chiefs 3 and Xiu Xiu. These Arches is Smith’s flagship ensemble, an unconventional bass-less unit no less unusual than Good for Cows, his longstanding duo with bassist Devin Hoff, or his solo percussion endeavor Congs for Brums.
These Arches features an intriguing multi-generational lineup, pairing seasoned accordionist/electronics wizard Andrea Parkins and ubiquitous guitar prodigy Halvorson with renowned alto saxophonist Berne and industrious tenor player Tony Malaby. Berne has proven to be visionary in his choice of younger collaborators; Jim Black, Chris Speed and Craig Taborn have all gone on to great acclaim following their tenure in Berne’s pre-millennial projects. Returning the favor, Berne has served as a sideman for some of his most compatible associates, including Smith.
The recent addition of Berne to the original four-piece roster amplifies the quintet’s fervency, simultaneously creating a conceptual link to the post-modern Downtown aesthetic that Berne helped shape with peers like John Zorn. Smith’s quixotic writing is reminiscent of the eclectic genre-splicing that defined the early Knitting Factory scene, although his stylistic juxtapositions are more organically cohesive than those of his predecessors. Despite the subtly diverse nature of the program, the individual tunes exhibit melodic similarities, lending the date a unified sensibility.
Reinforcing its title, Hammered traffics in somewhat heavier territory than the group’s 2010 Skirl debut, Finally Out Of My Hands. Most of the pieces were originally written for a rock-oriented lineup, a detail that’s readily apparent in the dramatic title track, which provides an excellent example of Smith’s sensitivity to dynamics. The number’s infectious theme is fashioned from nuanced variations on a soaring metallic riff driven by stop-time rhythms, bookending a series of divergent episodes that veer between swaths of coruscating noise, aleatoric pointillism and deft call and response.
Despite being chart-driven, the open structures underlying Smith’s labyrinthine compositions facilitate a wide range of individual interpretations. Dense, collective improvisations are counterbalanced by brief unaccompanied soliloquies and intimate duets, resulting in a fascinating array of detours, including Parkins and Halvorson’s pensive exchanges with Smith at the end of “Wilson Phillip” and the saxophonists’ sinuous interplay on “Learned From Jamie Stewart.”
The band’s intuitive chemistry also spurs their communal rapport. Together Parkins and Halvorson weave a phantasmagoric web of sound, underpinning the proceedings with a bevy of kaleidoscopic textures that range from skirling distortion and whirling fuzztones to chirpy percolations and glitchy bleats. Berne and Malaby, whose simpatico dialogue is further enriched by the tonal contrast between the former’s urbane precision and the latter’s folksy expressionism, make a suitably compelling frontline, capable of hushed lyricism to trenchant histrionics.
In light of such heavyweight company, it would be easy to take the leader’s sterling contributions for granted; his understated virtuosity eschews grandstanding pyrotechnics, driving his bandmates with concision and focus. Though the interpretive prowess of Smith’s collaborators is a key factor in the success of Hammered, their contributions are equally reliant on the malleability of the leader’s accessible writing. By gracefully incorporating everything from catchy post-punk themes to rousing Balkan-inspired motifs into a hybridized new standard, Smith successfully advances the erratic post-modern innovations of the recent past.