Ches Smith and These Arches - "Hammered (Live at Barbes)"
It’s possible that drummer Ches Smith’s name doesn’t trigger immediate recognition, but almost anyone following the outer edges of “jazz” (and particularly its intersections with tweaked, avant rock) has probably heard him play in Secret Chiefs 3, Xiu Xiu, Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog, and combos led by Tim Berne, Darius Jones, or Mary Halvorson. A player who knows how to exude power and momentum without resorting to showy technique or bombast, Smith’s got knack for spare grooves and ace details. These Arches assembles some of his most clutch collaborators (Halvorson, Berne, tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby, and the resourceful Andrea Parkins on accordion and electronics) to play what Smith calls “rock reject tunes.” That’s a pretty apt description of the music’s pleasures, even if it doesn’t quite capture how they range far beyond genre.
It opens and closes with the heavy sound of a fractious orchestra tuning up, differently articulated notes pinwheeling around before Smith cues up a limber, clattery groove. As methodology, the strategy of long simmer and coalescence isn’t especially complex. But it needn’t be when the basic ingredients and the band’s sound are in order, as they emphatically are here. Over the course of these eight tunes, Smith and his colleagues realize an interesting blend of Threadgillian vernacular abstractions, a gruff abstraction not unlike Ellery Eskelin/Andrea Parkins/Jim Black, and the punchy perambulations of Berne’s small groups. Many of the themes are melodically similar, in a way that suggests a suite-like cohesion. And what becomes apparent over Hammered’s duration is how well suited this instrumental combination is for the material. There’s a grainy thickness that swaddles many of the lines, courtesy of both those fulsome saxophones and the sonic mischief of Parkins and Halvorson. On tunes like the opening “Frisner” or the stuttering “Wilson Phillip,” they generate such deep, textured sound (low-end distortion, a curtain of fuzz, a panoply of squawks) that it can send the saxophones into shrieking ecstasy or fuel the deepest of grooves.
The tunes, though, aren’t mere burners; Smith is far too canny an arranger for that. Often as not, they pool out into abstraction (an area where Halvorson really shines) or seems to ride a tension-filled dissonant breakdown (as with “Learned from Jamie Stewart”). As instruments gather and dissipate, join in forceful thematic statements or tug against each other, the whole almost sounds like some kind of strange ritual. It works wonderfully on the shaggy free jabs of “Animal Collection” and the seductive 6/8 of “Dead Battery” (with a gorgeous, eternal return melody). But best of all is the lengthy set-capper “This Might Be a Fade Out,” which finds the band exulting in its full range of expression, from abstract opening to mournful close intervals, from chirpy accordion dance to vaguely sour sound, from burbling counterpoint to long textural laminations. And when Hammered finally winds down into its lushly consonant ending, it makes for a satisfying punctuation from this gnarly band.