Percussionist and composer Ches Smith is thought of as a “jazz” musician, having played (mostly) drums with improvisers like Mary Halvorson, John Zorn, Marc Ribot, Tim Berne, Matt Mitchell, Craig Taborn, and Darius Jones. He also played with the avant-rock band Mr. Bungle for a time, connecting with bassist Trevor Dunn — another genre-defier of the first order. Smith has jazz chops for days, but he is part of a scene that defies the obvious by creatively blending tonal jazz, harmonic freedom, electronics, classical “new music”, and traditions from around the world.
Labels mean nothing. His new album Laugh Ash works most of those influences into something that makes magical sense.
The group include both a string trio (violin, viola, cello) and a quartet of horns from the New Jazz world: Anna Webber’s flute, Oscar Noriega on clarinets, James Brandon Lewis on tenor saxophone, and trumpeter Nate Wooley. Shara Lunon adds vocals (in the ensemble and sometimes with her lyrics), with bassist/keyboardist Shazad Ismaily creating atmosphere and groove that accompany the leader’s electronics and variety of percussion. The result is music that is equal parts carefully notated intricacy, funky groove music, and 21st-century jazz, with improvising that is the farthest thing from a throwback.
“Disco Inferred” (not “Disco Inferno” by a long stretch, but with a strong backbeat still, complicated as it is) provides a wild example of what Smith is after. Before his drums kick in with a clear hi-hat smack on beats two and four, a squiggling synth interacts with the strings, playing a stabbing four-note lick. The groove shows up in electronic form just as a melody is stated by Lunon’s wordless voice, tightly arranged horns, and strings. Smith alternates his vibes with the off-beat melody, and then the string/synth pattern zings back in. It is playful and funky, not atonal, but this will never be mistaken for smooth jazz. The horn players begin improvising as Ismaily’s electric bass mixes it up with the drum kit, almost like Jaco Pastorius and Peter Erskine were both back on the scene. But does it sound like Weather Report? Hardly.
The music stops. Michael Nicolas gets a moment of scrape-y avant cello, after which a written string part moves in at half-tempo. The wind instruments provide solid support from beneath, and then the voice and electronics are back, leading to a snaking collective improvisation for flute, vibes, and electric bass. The main theme does not return — the performance ends with precision, and your heart is beating faster than before.
With so many textures and sounds at his disposal, Smith sometimes creates performances that feel like travelogues or soundtracks to shapeshifting films. “Unyielding Daydream Welding” begins with the quiet wavering of strings, which gives way to a harmonized R&B vocal from Lunon. The backbeat supports a wild, sputtering trumpet solo that ends suddenly only to set up a second, smoother pop groove that underlies a beautiful strings-plus-flute melody. Bass clarinet and saxophone solos? Yes, please, with James Brandon Lewis as a stunning, muscular presence.
Particularly cinematic (and not just the title) is “Shaken, Stirred Silence”. The opening melody is exceptionally beautiful, introducing a swirling string figure that will recur. Quickly, however, the silence takes over, with a spacey jam that lasts minutes before the string figure reasserts itself, leading to a hip groove over which Smith’s melody spins like a Philip Glass lick sitting on top of a skipping LP. Improvisation, breakbeats, and some wilder melodic elements recombine on top of each other, but hypnotically.
Each song on Ches Smith’s Laugh Ash melts into the next, suggesting a suite of sorts, even if the individual tracks sometimes feel internally episodic. The somewhat bopping theme toward the end of “Remote Convivial” cuts off suddenly, after which the tones of bells and strings rise over a musical horizon of “Sweatered Webs (Hey Mom)”, which gives us a vocal section that really could be a pop song, though one with a saxophone solo that has swagger. One scene leads to another.
The band are seamless. Each horn player is featured in piercing, right-to-the-point solos. Shara Lunon is fluid and locked in, seeming in every respect a singer who is part of the band but can also step into the spotlight. It is a group of ten that plays with the nimbleness of a great quintet.
Ches Smith is writing and producing exhilarating music, working in the fruitful gap that exists in the triangular space with “jazz” on one side, egg-headed classical “New Music on another, and hip-hop electronica on yet another side. It is neither part of the funky jazz meets R&B world of Robert Glasper nor in the classical music meets jazz space of Tyshawn Sorey (or, based on his new album, Ethan Iverson). If it is both/and, does that make it neither? Is the space so narrow that it is hard to imagine there being many listeners?
Or — allow me to dream — is the space opened up that much more by the lack of categories? Sitting in Le Poisson Rouge during New York’s Winter Jazzfest a few weeks ago, it seemed that a full house of people, mostly under 40, were roaring approval for music of all kinds, from a gospel-driven vocal choir to an abstract piano trio to a chant-like Pharoah Sanders tribute. Ches Smith was on the same bill that night. Of course.