Ches Smith and These Arches
Though drummer Ches Smith has a penchant for christening his compositions with playfully oblique names, the name he chose for the title track of the second album by his band These Arches couldn’t be more straightforward. “Hammered” is relentless, pounding, fueled by a driving, recursive pulse that goads tense, urgent playing fromSmith’s quintet of master improvisers.
The piece is a vivid illustration of the precarious balance that Smith strikes between the worlds of avant-garde jazz and experimental rock. He’s in demand as the drummer for such forward-thinking jazz artists as Tim Berne, Darius Jones, Mary Halvorson and Trevor Dunn; and at the same time he’s provided the backbone for adventurous rock acts like Xiu Xiu and Secret Chiefs 3, not to mention uncategorizable hybrids between the two like Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog and Smith’s own Good For Cows.
The merging of sonic worlds on Hammered is no accident; several of the pieces began life as songs penned for rock bands that evolved into more open frameworks for These Arches’ expansive improvisation. “A lot of these tunes were meant for a rock band but are being played by something that’s not a rock band at all,” Smithsays. “They’re sort of rock reject tunes, and that gave a shape to the whole record.”
These Arches may not be a rock band, but its membership has no problem providing the power and ferocity of one. Since the release of the band’s debut, Finally Out of My Hands, its ranks have been swelled by the addition of alto saxophonist/composer Tim Berne. He joins tenor powerhouse Tony Malaby, guitarist Mary Halvorson, and accordionist/electronic musician Andrea Parkins.
“These Arches is basically about me writing for a set of my favorite improvisers,”Smith explains. “The tunes I ended up coming up with for Hammered were more hard-hitting and straightforward than the earlier ones, but they’re also more expanded and developed.” The pieces make inspired use of these musicians’ ability to navigate fluidly between composition and improvisation while evoking the force and direct communication of heavy rock tunes.
Berne’s addition to this remarkable line-up was initially an accident, the result of a scheduling conflict. With Malaby unable to make a tour with the band, Berne stepped in; when Malaby’s calendar suddenly reopened, Smith decided to try arranging some of his music for both saxophonists. “It turned out great,” he says. “When we all played together it was like, ‘This is what I’ve been hearing.’ Having another voice to work with, and especially Tim’s way of improvising, adds a whole different dimension to the band.”
That new dimension is immediately evident on the album’s opener, “Frisner.” When the tune breaks down in the middle, Berne and Malaby both push their horns to their screeching limits while Smith and Halvorson provide pointillistic interjections and Parkins shrouds them all in skittering electronic textures. The title refers to master Haitian Vodou drummer Frisner Augustin, a teacher of Smith’s who passed away unexpectedly in February 2012. His influence can be felt in the piece’s buoyant, intricate rhythms.
Another percussion hero is honored via “Wilson Phillip,” which pays homage to the late drummer Phillip Wilson via a tongue-in-cheek reference to a somewhat less revered ‘80s pop band. The undersung Wilson was a veteran of the Art Ensemble of Chicago and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band who played with the likes of Lester Bowie, Anthony Braxton, and Julius Hemphill. Smith’s inspiration for the piece came from a beat played by Wilson on one of Hemphill’s records.
The spiraling “Dead Battery” was initially intended for Ceramic Dog, while the chaotic, ever-shifting “Learned From Jamie Stewart” was penned for Xiu Xiu, whose lead singer is name-checked in the title (which is also an inside joke between Smith and Bay Area clarinetist/composer Ben Goldberg). These Arches’ next project will be a collaboration with Stewart on a set of Nina Simone compositions.
“Limitations” provides a minimalist intermission to the album, while “Animal Collection” takes the repetitive structure of “Hammered” in a decidedly different, far more relaxed and grooving direction. And “This Might Be a Fade-Out” actually contains several fades before the ultimate one, ending the album on a note of perpetual resurgence.