Mar 5 2013
Even in the areas of music that embrace experimentalism and an avant-garde aesthetic, there can be a standard set of expectations of what the basic shape and form of a particular recording will be. Sometimes adventurism comes about incrementally, both from a particular musician and to the particular movement or scene they call home. The change can be slow even when vast leaps are attempted.
The first squeaks and skronks of Hammered, the new release by Ches Smith & These Arches are a case in point. They announce that this is going to be yet another modern jazz album that takes a strong avant-garde approach. Basically, it promises more of the good stuff.
But that turns out to be a bit deceptive. Because after that opening statement of skronks and screeches and sound blips, Andrea Parkins enters on accordion and adds a velvety soft element to the music’s sharp edges. The music is still ferocious, but that accordion adds a fuzzy coat of warm fur to the monster. It changes everything, except for the music’s identity. It’s a sudden and astounding transformation, shattering expectations and creating new ones.
And that’s just the first track. It builds from there.
Your album personnel: Ches Smith (drums), Tim Berne (alto sax), Tony Malaby (tenor sax), Mary Halvorson (guitar), and Andrea Parkins (accordion & electronics).
In addition to that wonderful accordion section on opening track “Frisner”, it’s a percussion wonderland replete with saxophone burn. And after it deconstructs into chaos, Smith brings it back with an anthemic bounce and chipper melody.
Second track “Wilson Phillip” has a Balkan flavor. The saxophones of Berne and Malaby and Halvorson’s guitar are a spaghetti tangle of notes between sections of rising waves of surging tempo. The song breaks down into formlessness and then silence, and then it picks right back up from where it all began, as if nothing had ever happened.
There is something very cool about how Smith deftly transitions songs in this manner. That he is able to disassemble tunes quite thoroughly from their original shape to the point where they’re almost unrecognizable, then immediately pull it all back together again makes for a hell of an engineering feat.
Third track “Dead Battery” winds and twists is short bursts of sound and form. The harmonization is a construct of layers like earthen strata, a musical geology. Dense sound, packed in tight, formed by heat and intense pressure. At the core of this song is a surging groove, of movement both melodically fluid and rhythmically dangerous.
The title-track digs right in with a statement both cool and propulsive. Halvorson leads on guitar, alternating between a groove and a grinds, a charred sound against fiery sax. There is a beautiful harmonic interlude of a thick airiness that last for too short a time before the ensemble rocks out to end the tune.
“Limitations” is an odd drifting tune, like a deconstructed dream. Bells pleasantly twinkling like stars above a mist of wavering sax and guitar, inducing sleep and snores. And if the dream is not yet over, then “Learned From Jamie Stewart” is its polar opposite. Saxophones like nightmarish streaks of lightning across a midnight sky, guitar as fiery eyes peering out from the darkness, accordion the howl of the wind, and a graveyard array of percussion.
The album ends with two songs that further illustrate Smith’s talent at smashing unlike sounds into seamless wholes. “Animal Collection” is a sandblasted wall of sound that parts for another cool groove (one of a surprisingly many on this album), spurred on by Halvorson’s bass line and buoyed by accordion and sax. In time, the groove and the wall of sound stop behaving as sandwiched elements and, instead, absorb one another for a singular sound… a force of nature in possession of a hip swagger.
The album closes out with “This Might Be a Fade Out.” It starts as a vortex draining into the earth, but as it descends into silence, it becomes waves gently lapping up against the shore. But this is only the beginning of the end. The song goes through a series of costume changes, ranging in sound from the chaotic to the less chaotic. It’s an impressive display of musicianship with which to pull it off, but more importantly, it really drives home the point that were it not for Smith’s talent at using rhythm to shepherd an array of varied sounds from start to finish, this track and, really, this whole album might’ve sounded muddied and all over the place. Instead, it’s often quite breathtaking for its expansiveness and adventurism.
This isn’t one you want to pass by.
Released on the Clean Feed Records label.
Jazz from NYC.
No audio to stream at this time.
You can also purchase the album directly from Ches Smith via his site and a paypal account.