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Album Review

Ches Smith: Interpret It Well


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Ches Smith: Interpret It Well
Ches Smith is a drummer who can make an immediate impact in a number of ways. His work as a sideman with everyone from John Zorn to Ben Goldberg to Tim Berne is ample evidence of his rhythmic range. But his own projects are just as inventive, from the punkish mania of Hammered (Clean Feed, 2013) to the re-imagined Haitian Voudou on 2021's Path of Seven Colors (Pyroclastic). If there is a common thread, it is probably found in Smith's love of groove, although his remarkable creativity as a percussionist always ensures there will be plenty of surprises in store. His latest, Interpret It Well, teams him with frequent collaborators violist Mat Maneri and pianist Craig Taborn, in addition to guitarist Bill Frisell, the latter making his first appearance on record with Smith. The results are extraordinary, with an alchemistic magic achieved through the four musicians' ability to fuse their individual talents masterfully.

Artist Raymond Pettibon provided the artwork for the album, and it is ideal in conveying the mysterious, open-ended forces at work here. A sparse landscape is depicted, perhaps somewhere in the Great Plains, with a few telephone poles and a farmstead alongside what looks to be a railroad track. But in the distance something looms: is it a tornado? Or a column of fire? Whatever it portends, one wants to discover it, and thus we are led into the richness of Smith's vision.

The album consists of five substantial tracks—four are longer than ten minutes, and two exceed the fifteen-minute mark—bookended by two much briefer, minimalistic ruminations which heighten the unease that characterizes this music. Nothing is quite as it seems; overt melodies are rare, rhythms are always forming and fracturing, and there is rarely a "lead" instrument, as all four players specialize in developing their ideas in conversation with the others. It is not freely improvised, but Smith's capacious compositions leave abundant room for space and creativity, and Taborn, Maneri and Frisell are all capable of capitalizing on it.

The title track is a marvel, with ostinato phrases articulated by Taborn and Smith, who plays vibes in addition to his kit throughout the album. Episodic interjections from Frisell and Maneri heighten the anticipation of what is to come as the track evolves, taking on a palpable urgency as Smith turns to the drums to coax his partners into bolder statements. By the time a groove is established, Frisell and Maneri are in full flight, with Taborn utilizing a repeated chordal pattern to fuel the ensuing maelstrom. "Mixed Metaphor" takes a similar trajectory, with Frisell's muted wanderings opening the track in conjunction with Taborn and Maneri, Smith once again starting the track on vibes, before the music takes on a more determined shape, and the track finds its pulse. But even here, to speak of "melody" in the conventional sense would be misleading; the music unfolds through the subtle communication between all four musicians, rendering it both challenging, and immensely rewarding to absorb.

With music so consistently strong, it is difficult to pick a standout track, but "Clear Major" might be the best example of the group's unique chemistry at work. Unlike some of the other cuts, this one is propelled from the start with a dynamic energy, surging over Taborn's insistent patterns and Smith's charged beats; but the track takes a number of turns over its fifteen-plus minutes, as the piece is collectively disassembled and reconstructed, with individual gestures gradually cohering into larger ones, before the piece's foundation is re-discovered through another oblique groove. It is a pleasure to hear these guys rocking out, but it is just as compelling to follow them through more ambiguous terrain, as they make their way through the unsettled landscape of the music to something a bit more solid.

A superb example of collaborative music-making, Smith's Interpret It Well is one of the drummer's finest efforts, and coming on the heels of Path of Seven Colors, it secures his status among the foremost percussionists of his generation.

Track Listing

Trapped; Interpret It Well; Mixed Metaphor; Morbid; Clear Major; I Need More; Deppart.


Ches Smith: drums; Craig Taborn: piano; Mat Maneri: viola; Bill Frisell: guitar, electric.

Additional Instrumentation

Ches Smith: vibraphone.

Album information

Title: Interpret It Well | Year Released: 2022 | Record Label: Pyroclastic Records

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