Drummer Ches Smith has been a part of a number of cutting-edge ensembles in New York since coming to the city in 2008. He is known for his eclectic style and his ability to play a part in a diverse range of musics. Most notably, he has led his band Ches Smith and These Arches, performed solo in Congs for Brums, and co-led the band Good for Cows with bassist Devin Hoff. He has also played a critical role as a sideperson in Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog, Mary Halvorson’s Trio, Quintet, and Septet, Brian Drye’s Bizingas, and for work with Matana Roberts, Tim Berne, Trevor Dunn, and other high profile musicians on the New York scene.
Simultaneously with Smith’s week at the Stone, he will be doing a month long residency at the Kitchen during the day accompanying Thai goldsmiths pounding gold: http://thekitchen.org/event/danh-vo-and-jamie-stewart-metal. Smith will also be performing with Tim Berne at the Stone, Oct 7-12.
Smith will be playing six consecutive nights at the Stone beginning Tuesday, September 30. Here is a full schedule:
- Sep 30: We All Break: A meeting of Haitian Drums and Creative Music, 8 & 10 pm (2 sets)
- Oct 1: Ches Smith and These Arches, 8 & 10 pm (2 sets)
- Oct 2: Ches Smith Quartet with Craig Taborn, Jonathan Finlayson, and Stephan Crump, 8 & 10 pm (2 sets)
- Oct 3: Craig Taborn, Mat Maneri, and Ches Smith at 8 pm; Ches Smith’s Congs for Brums: new solo music for drums, vibraphone, and electronics at 10 pm
- Oct 4: Matt Nelson, William Parker, and Ches Smith at 8 pm; Tyshawn Sorey, Randy Peterson, and Ches Smith at 10 pm
- Oct 5: Good for Cows + Trumpets: Devin Hoff, Ches Smith, Shane Endsley, and Jonathan Finlayson at 8 pm; Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog with Shahzad Ismaily and Ches Smith at 10 pm
The Stone is located at the corner of Avenue C and 2nd St in Manhattan
Cisco Bradley: What was the inspiration for the “We All Break” group? How long have you been involved with Haitian percussion? How did that start?
Ches Smith: I have been involved with Haitian Vodou drumming for over 10 years. I got into it accompanying Afro Haitian dance classes in the Bay Area. When I moved to New York I got more serious about it. The music has strong connections to jazz and new music, so I wanted to write music that highlights these connections. Also, I wanted to create more opportunities to play with Daniel, Markus and Matt.
CB: When did you start your quartet with Finlayson, Taborn, and Crump? What aspects of composition and improvisation have you been exploring with that group?
CS: Well, now these 2 sets will have Mat Maneri (viola) on them as well, making it a quintet. I basically fused two trios that have been happening for a year or two–finlayson, crump and I; Taborn, Maneri and me. With this new quintet the emphasis is decidedly rhythmic. That being said, our sets tend to be continuous flows, only 4 or 5 written pieces per set, with a lot of very open playing.
CS: These Arches has a whole new set of music emphasizing Andrea Parkins’ electronics work, as well as a suite that I wrote a few years ago that we haven’t played a lot, which is featured on a brand new live release (that I hope I have copies of soon) called International Hoohah. I am working up a brand new Congs for Brums set as we speak, which is heavy on polytonal and even microtonal material. as well as new quasi-melodic drum ideas I’ve been developing. I think the collection of tunes might be called “a complete and tonal disaster,” if that gives any idea of what the music sounds like. Ceramic Dog always has new music, but basically we’ll do what we always do: see what Marc calls in the set. I have a feeling we’ll improvise a lot, because the room is conducive to that.
CB: Could you introduce each of your new (or new-ish) groups. What is the background for these groups and what specifically will you be performing at the Stone?
a) Matt Nelson, William Parker, Ches Smith
CS: this is brand new. I’ve wanted to play with Matt for a long time, and I’ve only played with William a few times. I have a feeling this group will be quite an experience. Its going to be very open.
b) Tyshawn Sorey, Randy Peterson and Ches Smith
CS: This is also brand new. A wide-open set with two drummers I look up to quite a lot.
c) Good for Cows + Trumpets
CS: Good for Cows (Devin Hoff and I) will use our vast repertoire of aural cues which shift the landscape dramatically in order to antagonize the soloists. Actually I think the plan is to teach some of these cues to Jonathan and Shane to help mitigate their agony.
CB: Could you tell us a little more about your background. How did you get on the path to becoming a professional musician in New York and how did you become interested in this kind of music specifically?
CS: Wow, yeah, that’s a big question. [laughs] I’m going to try to not make it sound like I knew what I was doing the whole time because that’s definitely not the case. [laughs] Grew up in Sacramento. I had neighbors that got my older brother and I into drums. So, they taught me some rock beats when I was young, when I was five or six. I just started by playing along to Rolling Stones or Beatles records basically and then after a while it was just anything that was on the radio. And I was kind of in and out of drums as a kid until fifteen? Fourteen? You know, early high school. I started playing with this friend of mine and we started this horrible band. [chuckles] So then I wanted to take drum lessons because I kept hearing about rudiments, you know [laughs] like reading music, I didn’t know how to do that stuff. So, that was a curiosity of mine. So, my mom ended up finding a drum teacher for me. He was the one who made a jazz drummers mixed tape for me. He kept talking about jazz drummers when he’d show me stuff because a lot of the rock guys were either jazz drummers or were listening to jazz drummers. So he had a clever way of segueing into that which he was also super into. So, yeah, that’s how I was first exposed to jazz. And then when I was 17 I went off to college and I met some other guys who were into metal that I was listening to who were also checking out Coltrane and Monk, Miles Davis records. So that’s where that kind of started where I really began to like that as a listener instead of just as a drummer.
CB: You mentioned that mixed tape. Were there specific drummers on that tape that stood out?
CS: At that point, actually, the swing drummers. Big Sid Catlett. And I think there was a Miles Davis thing with Philly Joe on it. The Tony Williams one took a while to sink in. And then the Branford Marsalis Trio came to my school when I was there and I saw Tain [Watts], he can hit hard and he’s pretty rock-n-roll in a way and that’s when I thought “I want to get into this for sure.” A few months later John Tchicai came and then Bill Frisell Trio with Joey Barron, stuff like that, when I was young I could really relate to that. One other thing, in high school, my friends and I would get together to improvise. There was a little scene in Sacramento of older musicians who were into punk rock but then they played free improve also, so I always thought that was an acceptable thing to do [chuckles]. When I saw John Tchicai or Derek Bailey early on, I could relate it to that, something Sonic Youth did, So I kind of came into that. The free thing was going along next to the bebop thing I was going after. And then I was playing in rock bands, too, just for fun.
CB: How did your band These Arches first come together?
CS: I’d just met Tony [Malaby] and Mary [Halvorson] was already a really good friend and then, yeah I met Tony somewhere in the Bay Area when I was still living there. He used to come up there do stuff and I just really liked his playing. Same with Andrea Parkins. She’d come out and do stuff, so I’d get to see her play too you know. So I always wanted to play with both of them and I just booked this gig that was, I think the first one was actually with Devin, Tony and Mary and myself and I wrote just music for that. Then it wasn’t until a year later where I got to do it with Tony, Mary and Andrea because Devin was out in the west coast. I wasn’t sure about the music I wrote but I remember what we improvised–I thought it was really great, something ignited. So I decided, alright this could be a cool group but maybe we should just be an improvising group you know. Just because I didn’t want to have the writing bog it down. And then you know, Andrea and Mary especially said, “No, I like your tunes we should play the tunes because I think it helps us, it gives a shape to the improv even if the improv is free.” So, I said okay. I think they were right, I’m not sure I saw that at the time, but they were really encouraging about that aspect. Then we did a record and I put it out on Chris Speed’s label [Skirl]. He really liked the music, but I had no money, and I remember he just said, “I just got to tell you to put this out.” He ended up kicking down some money he didn’t even have. Chris is such a great guy he’d just be okay we got to do this but hey I’ll pay for half. And I just remember thinking it was just so daunting the idea of paying everybody, paying the studio you know, just all the stuff as a leader which I’d never done before, and had freak out moments where I thought, “I shouldn’t do this.” And then Shahzad [Ismaily] I remember he was talking to me, he said, “You’ve got to do it, you’ll look back and it will be totally worth it.” He was right because you know, eventually it starts paying, at least the touring pays for itself if not the recording. You do end up selling all your CD’s eventually on tour, so yeah.
CB: Your first record came out in 2010, is that right?
CS: Yeah it was recorded in 2009 and came out in 2010. Then we did some east coast gigs around that time and then 2011 like almost a year later we did our first European tour, and that was going to be, that was just going to be the quartet. And then Tony had something come up and he couldn’t do it, so I got Tim [Berne], I started playing with Tim Berne at the time. So, the first record was the quartet. Anyway, something came up for Tony, so Tim was there and he said, “Man, I’ll do it for you, you don’t even have to pay me.” I said, “No, no, you’ll get paid!” So we began practicing, it was just a few months before leaving for the tour, we did it as a quintet. Then all of a sudden, Tony called me and said, “Man you’ve got to get me on the tour, I can do it now.” At first, I said “No we can’t afford that,” and he said “you don’t even have to pay me.” But I said, “no let me just check it out.” And when I told the booking agent, he said, “no way.” Then he showed me the money and I thought, “we can totally do this.” It ended up being a good paying tour. So that’s how the quintet lineup happened to come together. Then we came back from that tour and recorded that second record called Hammered. Both of the records were pretty easy to make, actually not a lot of anguish over takes or anything like that. And then, now I’m just writing a bunch of music trying to integrate Andrea’s electronics more into the band in a compositional kind of way, like I’ve been actually making sound files to give her.
FRANCIS BRADLEY: Okay, I was wondering how that would work.
CHES SMITH: Yeah, we haven’t done it yet so I’m about to find out, it’s, but it’s cool because I can give her a part that has harmonic content but yet she could subvert that if she wants to because she can even transpose stuff you know, with her programming and stuff like that. I want her to be improvising with certain parts while at other times play stuff that is written. We’re still experimenting with it, but I think it could be really cool.
FRANCIS BRADLEY: Well I look forward to that. So that’s the next record?
CHES SMITH: Yeah, yeah. We worked on a lot of that stuff while on tour in Europe in April.
FRANCIS BRADLEY: When do you plan to record that album?
CHES SMITH: I do, I’m trying to come up with a budget. Devin [Hoff] did a gig that Tony couldn’t make last year up in Connecticut and so now I really want to add Devin on electric bass to the band. Yeah, but you know what I mean, that’s like putting out a minimum 5 grand just on the musicians promos, likely more if we do more than a day. Another thing I’m trying to record is this trio with Craig Taborn and Mat Maneri, that’s a brand new thing.
–Cisco Bradley, September 23, 2014