On Interpret it Well, drummer/ vibraphonist/ composer Ches Smith brings together three high-caliber improvisers for a refreshing take on minimal alt-jazz that is actually a lot more accessible than this oddball labeling suggests. With guitarist Bill Frisell, keyboardist Craig Taborn, viola player Mat Maneri on board and himself on drums and vibes, Smith could probably not have made a bad album. As it turns out, this one no doubt delivers the goods with inventiveness, compositional flair and a deep sense of clarity honed during the pandemic hiatus. Constructed from the most barebones material, the songs develop into full-blown extrapolations that move along with cumulative power and consistent logic. Take the opener “Trapped”, a repeated pattern is first played by Taborn as Frisell, Smith and Maneri rove around to set the mood. A very simple idea that doesn’t evolve into a melodic tune but builds up enough low-key intensity to stand on its own. The title track, borrowed from the script text of artist Raymond Pettibon’s ink drawing of the same name, encapsulates the logic at the core of the album. The opening statement played by Smith hands out the script for the musicians to follow before fading out into kaleidoscopic free-wheeling improv. Taborn then ushers in a new theme inadvertently, and true to form, excels at building drama from repetitive grooves that never feel repetitive. Frequently acting as the bassist of the band, his persistent vamps work as melodic or harmonic signposts that make the music gel. In that regard, Frisell is the perfect partner in crime for these sonic explorations, bringing out a full array of guitar sounds to the mix. By the end of the song, they’re all rocking out pretty hard and, weirdly enough, you didn’t see that coming.
About the album, Smith says: “I like a lot of music where nothing seems to be happening.” There is actually a lot more happening on that record than the composer would have us believe. Evocative, brooding and intense, the music seems to hover around in a transitional zone that all the protagonists are happy to embrace and contribute their signature style to. However minimal and skeletal the material, it gives the musicians ample room to push and pull the songs into many directions while staying on script. The multi-sectional “Mixed metaphor” is a case in point. Guitar and viola mesh particularly well, almost sounding like one instrument in the first part of the tune. Like Frisell’s, Maneri’s sound brings a spaciousness that feels right for these open-ended tunes, and he can also stretch out with disruptive power when the time comes. “Morbid” is expectedly subdued and atmospheric, a fitting prelude to the busier mood pervading the next track “Clear Major”. Collective deconstructions are interspersed within the various sections of this seemingly complex tune and the quartet navigates these rugged roads with a keen sense of dynamics. Frisell takes it out with crystalline overtones against Smith’s reverberant vibes.
It is to Smith’s credit that he picked out the right bandmembers to interpret his compositions where, well, interpretation is the key point. Alternately quiet and vibrant, the overall mood of the album is one of suspension and equilibrium that allows the musicians to shift gears in a heartbeat within the songs while avoiding abrupt transitions. Listen to the delicately layered “I need more” to hear what I mean.
“Depart” brings the album full circle, a variation on the structure and mood of the opening track. Pettibon’s cover art illustrates the vibe of the music well. Where is that railroad track going as it intersects with the sea? Is a storm brewing out there? By offering music focused on the journey rather than the destination,the quartet convened by Ches Smith builds an entrancing sonic universe. Do not miss out on this important recording. Interpret It Well drops May 6th on Kris Davis’ cutting-edge record label Pyroclastic Records. Many thanks to Ann Braithwaite for sharing it with me ahead of its release.
Ches Smith – drums, vibraphone
Craig Taborn – piano
Mat Maneri – viola
Bill Frisell – guitar