Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Ches Smith & These Arches' "Finally out of my hands"

If there's a trend in jazz today -- and by jazz I mean new improvised music, not entertainment based on rote reproductions of historical styles -- it's something like "musicians assimilating larger vocabularies." Rather than playing infinite variations on the chord sequence to "I Got Rhythm," today's improvisers are blending influences from post-bebop and post-Coltrane free jazz with European free improvisation and modern classical styles, rock, hip-hop, and whatevah floats their boat. You could blame John Zorn (or Frank Zappa) if you wanted to, but it's not a calculated synthesis; rather, it's the natural outgrowth of performers who grew up absorbing a range of influences applying everything they know to what they create.

Ches Smith is a drummer from San Francisco who relocated to Noo Yawk City to work with the likes of Marc Ribot, Tim Berne, Terry Riley, and John Tchicai, if you want some names from a variety of traditions to conjure with. For this project, Smith's intent was to write for a band that "improvises well even without tunes": saxophonist Tony Malaby, guitarist Mary Halvorson, and Andrea Parkins on accordion, organ, and electronics.

In this mix, Malaby emerges as the dominant solo voice; his Ornettishly ruminative blues tonality and multiphonics never cease to engage. Parkins employs her arsenal of axes to provide beds of color and texture to frame his contributions. Halvorson's wiry skronk has been better served elsewhere. Here, she sounds like Charlie Ellerbee on Ornette's early Prime Time sides, her melodic contributions hampered by an uncharacteristically brittle tone. Smith's convoluted melodies sometimes recall Henry Threadgill's (to mention another leader who writes interesting charts for ensembles with unusual instrumentation). Make no mistake, though: it's the drummer's date, and Smith's clattering traps outline the contours of every piece.


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