Ches Smith: A Force of Nature

The drummer-composer Ches Smith builds a reputation as bandleader and sideman

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Mary Halvorson Trio (L to R): Ches Smith, John Hebert, Mary Halvorson
By Peter Gannushkin
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Ches Smith
By Ziga Koritnik

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Between August and September, drummer and composer Ches Smith went on tour with guitarist Mary Halvorson in Colombia and Portugal, performed in Brooklyn with Marc Ribot’s post-everything trio Ceramic Dog, played an NYC album-release show with pianist Matt Mitchell, toured the West Coast with reedman Ben Goldberg’s Unfold Ordinary Mind and still managed to fit in a performance with the instrumental rock band Secret Chiefs 3 at John Zorn’s Masada Marathon in New York.

Smith’s relentless schedule extends to the recording studio as well. He appears on three hotly anticipated recent releases: Illusionary Sea (Firehouse 12), by the Mary Halvorson Septet; Fiction (Pi), Mitchell’s roiling debut album of richly textured, angular duets; and Shadow Man (ECM), avant-garde saxophonist Tim Berne’s dense, atmospheric sophomore album with the quartet Snakeoil. (The latter two feature Smith’s melodic chops on vibraphone in addition to his drumming.) He also appeared on two releases earlier in the year: Hammered (Clean Feed) with These Arches, his own punk-inflected quintet, and Your Turn (Northern Spy) with Ribot’s Ceramic Dog.

In his late 30s, Smith is one of the busiest drummers working in the avant-garde today. But as Ribot explains, he works equally hard and smart. “He’s one of the best drummers I’ve ever worked with—not just a drummer, but a composer and a musical thinker,” says the guitarist. “You’ve read [Marquis de] Sade’s Philosophy in the Bedroom, well, this is philosophy in the tour bus. We have a mutually pessimistic understanding of human nature, but we both like to rock the house.”

Since he moved to Brooklyn in 2008, Smith has continually stretched the parameters of the jazz idiom, straddling the musical spaces shared between his jazz heroes and free improvisation, modern classical music, experimental rock and noise. He takes an unapologetically postmodern cue, juxtaposing lessons from King Crimson, Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, Albert Ayler and Fred Frith with jazz training that included hours spent transcribing parts by Elvin Jones, Chick Webb and Papa Jo Jones. “I decidedly don’t think in terms of genre,” Smith says. “I’ve always been attracted to the examples in each genre that defy it. I just try to play what I hear.” Smith’s eclectic interests are apparent in the music he composes for the projects he leads, too, including the Ches Smith Trio, with Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet and Stephan Crump on bass; the duo Good for Cows, with bassist Devin Hoff; the aforementioned These Arches, featuring Berne, Halvorson, Tony Malaby on tenor saxophone and Andrea Parkins on accordion, organ and electronics; and Congs for Brums, an experimental solo project in which he makes extensive use of electronics.

Smith grew up in Sacramento, Calif., around the burgeoning grunge and metal scenes of the late ’80s and early ’90s, but he caught the jazz bug early. He attended the University of Oregon, where he majored in philosophy but continued studying jazz theory and performance with saxophonist Steve Owen and keyboardist Gary Versace. After graduating, he relocated to the Bay Area in 1995, playing in various bands including a community ensemble at Mills College in Oakland. At the urging of several faculty members, Smith enrolled in the master’s program at Mills on scholarship, studying with multi-instrumentalist Frith, composer Alvin Curran and percussionist William Winant.

His first day on campus, Winant asked Smith if he wanted to sub for him in one of his groups. “He was yelling at me from down the hall. He said, ‘Hey, man, lesson on Tuesday, and what are you doing in October? I’ve got a gig for you. You’ve got to go on tour with Mr. Bungle,’” Smith says, referring to the iconoclastic avant-garde metal group. It was an offer he couldn’t refuse.

Smith toured with Mr. Bungle in the U.S. and Australia for the rest of the semester, playing auxiliary percussion alongside drummer Danny Heifetz. “That was a mind-expanding experience for me,” Smith says. “It was the first time I played with a multiple percussion setup instead of the drum set.”

While on tour, he became close with bassist Trevor Dunn, whom he continues to collaborate with in Secret Chiefs 3 and other groups. Then Chiefs bassist Shahzad Ismaily suggested Smith to Ribot for the guitarist’s new trio project, Ceramic Dog. The informal audition took the form of a jam session involving a complex arrangement of a Ribot tune. Ostensibly, it didn’t go well, Smith says; however, several months later, Ribot called to offer Smith the gig.

This eventually led to work with Berne, who has championed Smith’s emotional intensity, subtle phrasing and generous spirit of collaboration across several groups. “If everyone was as committed to music and creativity as Ches Smith, there would be no need for television,” says Berne. “The man is a force of nature.”

Originally published in November 2013

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