Bassist Damon Smith Helps Steer Astral Plane Crash’s Improv

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Damon Smith (left) and Ra-Kalam Bob Moses

(Photo: Craig Marshall)

Since 2010, Plane Crash featured the improvisatory skills of Henry Kaiser (guitar), Damon Smith (bass) and Weasel Walter (drums). But a new release finds the ensemble expanding to a quintet, taking improv into the zone of melting, vacuum-suck extremity.

Astral Plane Crash is out on Smith’s own Balance Point Acoustics label, the crew now also including Vinny Golia (reeds) and Ra Kalam Bob Moses (drums). The latter is a veteran percussionist who has played with Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Larry Coryell, Gary Burton and Dave Liebman, but who previously hasn’t recorded much within the world of free improvisation. His meeting with fellow sticksman Walter creates a blend of ritual invocation and clipped outbursts, as Golia’s gritty baritone saxophone faces up to Kaiser’s roaring guitar. But there also are gentler stretches on Astral Plane Crash, with Golia blowing delicate kawala, an Egyptian cane flute, and Kaiser probing space with spectrally hanging slide phrases.

Smith spoke with DownBeat from his home in Quincy, Massachusetts, a few streets away from Native Pulse studio, where Astral Plane Crash was recorded, and where Moses is the creative adviser.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

What happened when Plane Crash become Astral Plane Crash?

When I moved to Quincy in 2016, it turned out I lived near the great Ra Kalam Bob Moses, unquestionably one of the greatest living drummers. The first project I did on the East Coast was a trio with Joe McPhee and Alvin Fielder. I contacted Ra Kalam, so he and Alvin could meet, and we spent the afternoon at his place with Al and Ra Kalam talking drums and drummers, mostly. It came out how committed Bob was to free music. He has a bass in his studio, and we played a bit. After that, we did a few projects, a quartet with Joe McPhee and Jeb Bishop, and trios with Mark Whitecage and Burton Greene. Henry is probably the third or fourth person I ever played an improvised music concert with, in the early ’90s. He is a huge fan of Tisziji Muñoz, who is a very important collaborator for Ra Kalam.

How would you describe the rapport with new bandmates Golia and Moses?

We started planning a project, deciding on our longstanding Plane Crash trio. Weasel is in New York, not far away, and [we expected] the tension between the two drummers’ different approaches would be interesting. I’ve been playing with Vinny, one of the greatest woodwind players alive, nearly as long as Henry, and he had done several projects with us. He let me know he would be there around that time, and it turned out Vinny and Bob had been roommates in the 1960s, but had never played together.

I actually love the quintet format; it presents more interesting problems to solve than a trio, but it’s not unwieldy. It’s really about the amazing drummers on this one.

While the three of us have many interests, I’ve always felt the Plane Crash trio is bonded by our shared interest in British free improvisation, and moves out from there.

Vinny and Ra Kalam brought different ideas to the music and ultimately pushed things in a fresh direction with their completely original approaches. Ra Kalam, in particular, has his own “Ra Kalam rhythms” he brings to the music: completely open, swinging and grounded at the same time. My primary focus is free improvisation. I do some new music here and there, and I’ll play compositions with and by the old masters. However, I think there’s a lot to do with free improvising. I feel I have lots of “compositions,” but I can express and contain them on the bass. Many years ago, I decided not to play with anyone I felt that I needed to tell what to do. The music here is completely improvised with a few edits to make the two big pieces. After a break in the session, Ra Kalam walked into the room and proclaimed the project “Astral Plane Crash.”

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