Drummer and composer Ches Smith is a free spirit that keeps us constantly guessing on what his next project holds. Two are never the same and even rarely similar when considering his Haitian Vodou ensemble We All Break, his stunning Interpret It Well with Bill Frisell, Craig Taborn and Mat Maneri, and various recordings with Dave Holland, Tim Berne, John Zorn, Kris Davis, Marc Ribot, and others. His sideman work is equally compelling. This new project, Laugh Ash, is, as we should expect now, is something altogether different and as comparably ambitious as We All Break. The ensemble numbers ten, with high profile musicians from the creative scene paired with progressive classical musicians. Smith plays drums, electronics, and an array of percussion leading vocalist Shara Lunon, flutist Anna Webber, clarinetist Oscar Noriega, tenor giant James Brandon Lewis, trumpeter Nate Wooley, violinist Jennifer Choi, violist Kyle Armbrust, cellist Michael Nicholas, and bassist/keyboardist Shahzad Ismaily in a riveting program at the intersection of forward-thinking jazz, modern classical, head banging rock, and electronica. These elements of his previous endeavors are meshed up here.
Consider that in the liner notes, Smith cites the following influences – Steve Reich, Beethoven string quartets, three hip-hop MCs, and electronica organized in buckets – strings, horns, bass sounds (both guitar and keyboards) and drums (both machines and kit). Oh, and the human voice for texture or conveying poetic or literal ideas. You can expect strident, atmospheric, friendly, inaccessible, ridiculous, and whatever else. Here is his commentary “…I suppose I would call it serious; it is undoubtedly sincere. Yet listeners might find parts of it at least a little bit funny…Genuine laughter arrives unannounced, causing a fissure where time stops. If the bout of laughter is severe, you may find yourself at the point of disintegration. Afterward, if not too worn out, you can dust away the ash, put yourself back together and continue your life afresh, newly curious about what is possible.”
Some of you may just want to stop there and listen. Yet, some commentary on the material follows for those who relish such. The opener “Minimalism” obviously draws from Reich but also has Lunon’s blend of rock and hip-hop vocal against teeming strings and a driving Moog arpeggio. James Brandon Lewis blows against the complex rhythm patterns of “Remote Convivial” which morphs into a relatively calm string led passage that then blossoms into an all-out funk attack resembling Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time. “Sweatered Webs (Hey Mom)” begins with flowing chamber music, Smith’s vibes, and ethereal tones before Lonon enters with a vocal set against a fat bass-drum rhythm that evokes his Haitian strains of We All Break as next sequence pairs Lewis’s tenor with the vocal. Wooley gets a brief say toward the end too. Fortunately, the lyrics to these pieces, often a bit indecipherable in the recording, are laid out in the accompanying booklet.
“Shaken, Stirred Silence” (…Silenced in me My only border is my body”) is begins with eerie electronica before an infectious groove develops, above which we hear a very weird mix of horns, voice, strings, and electronica. Like so many of these pieces, there are various sections that keep the listener guessing, and, in some cases grinning as is likely on “The Most Fucked,” filled with a variety of samples as if a little kid just entered a room filled with toys and embraced them with glee. Lunon takes the spoken word approach in the dizzying “Winter Sprung,” her voice competing with fluttering flute, chiming percussion, synths, and strings in the first section while a more ambient and then a humorous, playful sequence ensues. “Disco Inferred” pits strident strings against a captivating hip-hop beat with flashes of electronica and impressive trumpet from Wooley and clarinet from Noriega. We then hear the toy-like motifs popping through chamber music to a marching cadence. (Yes, many disparate parts are jumbled together). Nonetheless, the segue to the dark, foreboding “Unyielding Daydream Welding” is smooth with that tune also unfolding to brisk rhythms above which a variety of elements such as the tenor, strings, and clarinet creating alternatively lovely and disturbing harmonies. Finally, “Exit Shivers” leaves us completely dazed with its mix of strident strings, doom metal, and rather inexplicable atmospheric colorings.
Underlying it all is Smith’s steady, infectious, and funky rhythms but it’s the kind of music that has few reference points, unlike just about anything you’ve heard. Smith’s juxtapositions and jolting collisions are often stunning. Only a handful of labels have the courage to house such daring music. Thankfully, we have Pyroclastic.
- Jim Hynes
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