Ches Smith’s These Arches boasts a line-up so powerful I had to check the statute books to see if this grouping was even legal. And that’s before Tim Berne was added in time for their impending second offering, Hammered. The alto saxophonist is joined by a tenor sax counterpart, Tony Malaby, plus Andrea Parkins on accordion and electronics, Mary Halvorson on guitar and Smith on drums.
Smith is no stranger to anyone into New York’s downtown music scene. He applies his advanced method on drums for such avant-garde leaders such as Berne, Halvorson, Ben Goldberg, Marc Ribot (Ceramic Dogs), Darius Jones and Trevor Dunn. His experimental rock side gets out as the drummer for the bands Xiu Xiu, Secret Chiefs 3 and the Smith-led Good For Cows. Smith has even dabbled into electronica in his own way, via his other side project, the one man drums ‘n’ electronics show Congs For Brums.
Truth is, Smith is proving his might as a leader with a very inclusive, original and scopic view of music. When thinking about who should be the next noted sideman who, like Halvorson a few years ago, should now be thought of as leader more than sideman, Smith has earned that distinction.
Smith is fully aware that he’s assembled some of the best free improvisers of the current scene; he must be, because they’re improvising relentlessly, intensely and — with the direction coming from Smith’s freewheeling compositions — a sense of purpose. So aptly titled, Hammered is a strong indication that Smith may be even more experimental than his more famous practitioners of outside jazz and improvised music. He’s pushing some of them out toward areas that even they don’t tread that often on their own records, setting the table for them to extemporize together, in tandem and in collisions, creating a bonfire of unvarnished expression from a collection of very creative musical minds.
Smith does create songs with melody, harmony and a plot, just not with of the kind of movement found in most music. All the improvisations serve as a logical outgrowth from Smith’s compositions. “Frisner,” the opening salvo, is indicative of the strategy: it begins with a simple melody, a march with which Parkins’ accordion adds a kind of Eastern European flavor. Berne peels off the theme to solo around it, and then Smith leads the band into the abyss, and they emerge from it with Malady leading a skronk orgy. Order is eventually restored and the group works its way back toward the original theme. Since there’s no bass player in this band, Halvorson is assuming that role for much of this song (and the other ones) using the top strings on her guitar, in addition to comping and leading. The tune is just a lot of rambunctious fun.
For “Wilson Phillip” there is a breakdown following a definable figure, but this time it’s an inspired interaction among Halvorson, Smith and Berne. The second breakdown features an anguished Malaby, and the third highlights Parkins’ growling accordion. In between, Smith is utilizing a unique beat he first heard from a recording that the late drummer Phillip Wilson did with saxophone great Julius Hemphill. I like how “Dead Battery” begins with a multilayered repeating figure and moves into another one, both unpinned by Halvorson and fully articulated by Malaby, Berne and Parkins. Inevitably, group improvisation seeps in and then takes over the song, led out of the wilderness by some harmonizing lines between the two saxes.
“Hammered,” the song, is paced by Smith’s fierce rock backbeat, calling to mind his punk-jazz Ceramic Dog persona. Berne and Perkins erupt with an harmonic counterpoint, and then Malaby breaks out the Ayler-isms as the song builds up to a hard rocking climax. The rest of the song bounces between quietly dissonant moments coming from Halvorson and droning saxes, and that furious backbeat.
“Learned From Jamie Stewart” features a riveting duet between Malaby and Berne. “Animal Collection” grooves as Halvorson plays a simple but effective bass line and Malaby, Berne and Parkins complex melodic elements. A full band racket ensues before they lurch forward with a cool, semi-dissonant contrapuntal melody. “This Might Be A Fade Out” is a collection of figures or explosions that fall away to make room for the next one.
A convulsive album filled with an eruption of ideas doesn’t always make a good album, if the ideas aren’t that inspired or the execution falls flat. But Smith seems to have absorbed the flair of all of his musical bosses and then invited some of them — and their peers — to help him carry out his informed vision, and they prove to be willing and able participants. Hammered is as good as it should be, the real discovery from this record is about its mastermind. Ches Smith has become as legitimate in the leader and composer roles as he’s long achieved as a bandmember.