Vibraphonist Ches Smith Adds Bill Frisell to Form Quartet On Spacious ‘Interpret It Well’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Considering that drummer/vibraphonist/composer Ches Smith did not debut as a leader until his 2016 The Bell on ECM, he has certainly been prolific in the years since. His debut featured pianist Craig Taborn and violist Mat Maneri for a trio recording which he now expands to a quartet with the addition of renowned guitarist Bill Frisell on Interpret It Well.

Smith though is an innovative presence no matter which format he chooses to pursue. This is Smith’s fourth as a leader since The Bell which he followed with 2018’s Uncharted Territories on Dave Holland’s Dare 2 label, 2019’s ECM Sun of Goldfinger, and 2021’s Pyroclastic Vodou-inspired Path of Seven Colors, hailed by many outlets and this writer as that year’s best jazz album. Note also that Smith makes stunning contributions as a sideman since the beginning of this millennium including his recent stint on the just-released Erik Friedlander’s A Queen’s Firefly. Here Smith returns to Kris Davis’ Pyroclastic, home to forward-thinking, out of the mainstream improvisers such as Taborn. (We have also covered label roster artists Tony Malaby, Mary Halvorson and Sylvie Courvosie on these pages). 

Interpret It Well takes its title from the script text in Raymond Pettibon’s evocative drawing which graces the cover. As the title suggests, one can easily discern the train tracks, the telephone poles, and the distant building but the swirl of lines on the horizon could mean any number of things from an oncoming storm, steam from an oncoming train, or just about anything one wants to assign to them. As such the music is mysterious too, at times contemplative or solemn and at others brimming with energy and uplift. Given the instruments involved and Frisell’s penchant for loops and effects, this quartet adroitly delivers textures, layers, and an array of sonics that are often spellbinding. These are minimal compositions that allow freedom for these improvisers. Just when it seems placid, the next piece will rustle you out of your hypnotic state. This quote from Smith is a bit of a headscratcher but one can appreciate it when listening to the abundant surprises that await – “…I like a lot of music where nothing seems to be happening.”

The album has just seven pieces comprising its 69 minutes, with two of them, the bookends, only around two minutes each, the opening “Trapped” and closing “Deppart” (“Trapped” spelled backwards). These are two alternate versions of the same piece, evoking a similar haunting quality to the art that inspired this work. The repetitive melody is, according to Smith, simultaneously a bar, a melody, or a chord. The other five substantive tracks have two exceeding fifteen minutes with the others lengthy as well. This is far from the typical head-solo-solo-head format as there is rarely a solo; instead, we find the players reacting to each other and sharing new ideas along the way. Long drawn-out melodies are not here and even the rhythm patterns dissolve after a while and take on new life.

The title track is certainly a key piece, beginning with Smith quietly pattering around on his vibraphone as the others begin to encroach as if creatures emerging from thick woods into a clearing where some kind of activity is just bubbling beneath the surface. Taborn echoes Smith’s ostinato phrases and Frisell and Maneri look for their best spots to enter, which Smith signals by turning to his kit. The drama builds through Smith’s cymbal crashes and stuttering statements from Frisell and Taborn before the piece gathers urgent momentum toward the eight-minute mark over Taborn’s repetitive chords until reaching a foreboding ferocity in its final three minutes. The storm has indeed arrived. Artist/Filmmaker Frank heath, taken by the piece, created a video which will be available upon release on Smith’s and Pyroclastic’s websites.

“Mixed Metaphor” takes a similar tact, with Frisell leading the meandering this time in conjunction with Taborn and Maneri. Smith again starts on vibes, engaging in a duet with Taborn before shifting to the drums, which again is when the music finds a pulse. Before that though, the sound that Maneri coaxes out of his bowed viola runs the gamut from beautiful to scary. “Morbid” may be the best example of that aforementioned quote from Smith. It’s a delicate piece played at a plodding tempo, befitting its title. It’s as if the four are walking through a museum with no one willing to upset the calm, hushed atmosphere.

“Clear Major” is another standout track, essentially a three-part suite, beginning with Taborn’s patterns and Smith’s ever-active kit work, which becomes even more energetic in the middle and final sections. Meanwhile, Frisell and Maneri go off, completely unbridled. At several junctures, the piece dissolves and fractures only to have them build in back again in more grandiose proportions. While there is tension in this piece, the complex “I Need More” doubles the ante, reaching almost a rock-like intensity with Frisell’s piercing solo. The strength of this music is its shifting, wandering nature. We don’t know what to expect next. Fresh ideas completely change the direction of the music constantly.

Considering how this is such a far different place from the Vodou, percussion-heavy Path of Seven Colors, Ches Smith has clearly staked his claim as not only an inventive percussionist but as one of the most versatile composers of this generation’s forward-thinking artists

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