Graded on a Curve:
Ches Smith,
Interpret It Well

Interpret It Well is the new compact disc from drummer and vibraphonist Ches Smith. It features the return of his trio with violist Mat Maneri and pianist Craig Taborn, but now pleasingly expanded to a four-piece with guitarist Bill Frisell. The sounds range from spaciously quiet to angular to pretty to downright heavy, at moments abstract, at other points melodic and occasionally bordering on grooving, but with unifying tension and flashes of unease. Fittingly, a stark and ambiguously ominous painting by Raymond Pettibon provides the CD with both its cover art and its title. The disc is tucked inside a six panel gatefold sleeve available May 6 through Pyroclastic Records.

Ches Smith has played on a formidable amount of records, spanning from groups and sessions organized by Tim Berne, John Zorn, Marc Ribot, David Torn, Trevor Dunn and others to numerous leaderless encounters and even handful of collective units, e.g. Secret Chiefs 3 and Good for Cows. Additionally, Smith has a (still manageable) batch of releases solo and as leader, with Interpret It Well his second in dialogue with Mat Maneri and Craig Taborn; the first, The Bell, came out on CD in 2016 through ECM.

The Bell is a pretty terrific record and obviously Smith felt that way too as he attempted, in his words, to make the creative triangle his “road” band” from 2016-’18. Bill Frisell caught a show late in that stretch and was so impressed that he wrote to Smith about what he’d heard. And long story short: as everybody in this scenario held everybody else in high regard, Frisell was invited to join them on the bandstand for a performance.

The show went down rather swimmingly, but then Covid reared its ugly viral mug, and with all the parties masked up in the same city, the decision was made to record with Frisell. That Interpret It Well delivers an advance on The Bell’s already substantial worthiness might be seen as unsurprising and maybe even as an inevitability, but just as there is “addition by subtraction” in musical situations, the opposite is also a possibility.

Thankfully, the creative chemistry flowed as Frisell’s participation only deepens what was already a fairly distinctive instrumental configuration. But what’s immediately apparent in “Trapped,” Interpret It Well’s succinct opening selection, is Smith establishing a dark atmosphere on the vibes. One might even call it noirish, though the music here, a few suggestive track titles aside, never really pushes into full-on narrative/ cinematic territory in its evocation of mood.

The vibes are a tricky instrument in jazz. Even beyond a lingering association with cocktail-ish conservatism, there’s an inflexibility to the mallets that makes mastery extremely difficult, even in an avant-garde context. And this group fits the avant-garde description, even as the title track culminates in something of a post-rock/ fusion neighborhood. Make that an appealingly wild post-rock/ fusion part of town, and ultimately a striking progression, as the piece begins in a fairly mediative neck of the woods.

Taborn moves wonderfully from post-Modern explorations to sweet variations on patterns to rock/R&B-derived thunder, while Maneri sets a Euro chamber tone only to eventually soar and roar like he’s Leroy Jenkins in Paris. Frisell gets woozy with the effects, as is his way, along with dishing a few jazzy flourishes, and all without upsetting the interactive balance established on The Bell.

The opening minutes of “Mixed Metaphor” offer Frisell at his most contemplative, but at over 16 minutes, the piece is a shapeshifter structurally, with the highlight an extended stretch that showcases Taborn with a Latin-tinge and Maneri a tad reminiscent of Jerry Goodman. Then, positioned in the middle of the disc (with three tracks on each side), “Morbid” favors the textural over momentum and structural breadth.

“Clear Major” spreads out to over 15 minutes, lending symmetry to Interpret It Well, though the piece markedly contrasts with “Mixed Metaphor” by diving deep into avant-abstract spillage instead of ramping up to a hard-charging finale. Frisell gets to strut his post-category stuff throughout, and in fact all the participants are too damned slippery to be stylistically pinned down (like four eels in a barrel full of warm Crisco). But please understand that jazz in the 21st century is a big tent (surely the biggest it’s ever been).

“I Need More” starts out as a cooker, simmers down, then gradually raises the intensity as the four-person interplay is some of the album’s finest. And then closing track “Deppart” serves as a tidy bookend with opener “Trapped,” reinforcing Interpret It Well’s meticulous construction as an album. Smith released the superb Path of Seven Colors with his group We All Break just last year on Pyroclastic, but here he is again with another total stunner.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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