Ches Smith: ‘A Fearless Seeker’


“He is always growing, always learning, always moving forward,” said John Zorn of Smith.

(Photo: M. Rodrigues)

Cities and towns, large and small, through their geography, culture, cuisine and dialect, possess unique, compelling qualities. In California, a plethora of such places abound: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, Carmel, Ojai, Paso Robles, Sacramento … wait, Sacramento? Granted, that city’s claims to fame are as the state capital and the home of a perpetually middling professional basketball team, but otherwise, it doesn’t get much respect.

Ches Smith is from Sacramento. He was recently there again, on vacation with his family, speaking over video from a bedroom in his sister’s house. “I found growing up here in Sacramento that there was always a bigger city to model after or something like that,” he offered. In a way, Smith embodies his hometown, as an artist who needed time and travel to search for his own identity, from Sacramento to Eugene, Oregon, the Bay Area, Los Angeles and ultimately Brooklyn, New York, where he has established himself as one of the foremost forward-thinking drummers, composers and bandleaders in a thriving creative music scene. “Ches Smith is a miracle. An eternally curious, imaginative, honest musician who always and instinctively puts his virtuosity at the service of the music,” said avant-garde visionary John Zorn in an email. “Ches is the real deal, and it is a deep honor to have him [as] a treasured member of my tightest, innermost crew.”

Smith has only solidified his position at the center of the New York creative music scene with the release of his latest album, Laugh Ash, on Pyroclastic Records, the label founded in 2016 by pianist Kris Davis. It’s his third release on Pyroclastic, following Path Of Seven Colors (2021), his critically acclaimed homage to Haitian Voudou music with his ensemble We All Break; and Interpret It Well (2022), featuring a more introspective group with violist Mat Maneri, pianist Craig Taborn and special guest Bill Frisell. The contrasting aesthetics of these albums merely scratch the surface of the eclecticism Smith has explored over three decades as a professional musician.

“The mission of the label is to support noncommercial, adventurous artists, artists who are willing to take chances and try new ideas,” said Davis, who has known and played with Smith since he first moved to New York. “Ches has all of those qualities. And you can feel the growth and development of his artistry from album to album.”

Laugh Ash, in turn, is strikingly different from Smith’s last album — really, from anything he has done prior. For this project he assembled a 10-piece group of woodwinds and strings, bassist/keyboardist Shahzad Ismaily and vocalist Shara Lunon, supplemented by electronic drum loops and effects.

The initial conception for the music started with those loops, something Smith had started to explore with his longstanding solo drums and vibraphone project, Congs for Brums. “I had made a bunch of tracks, almost like hip-hop style, over the last few years,” he explained. “I was like, how do these producers make stuff that grooves like a drum set player? I was working on different combinations of sounds and where to put things in the beat … like snare drums before or after the beat, things that I think about all the time playing.” During the pandemic, he leaned in further to understand how to incorporate those beats into live performance.

Another striking feature is the incorporation of the human voice, something Smith first implemented in We All Break, where original songs by tanbou/vocalist Daniel Brevil were included with more traditional Voudou songs. That experience led Smith to ask Lunon to write her own lyrics and melodies to tracks of the music he sent her for Laugh Ash. Lunon responded with a potpourri of adventurous melodies, spoken-word poetry and, as in the case of the first track, “Minimalism,” a Krautrock-style rap over Smith’s hybrid electro-acoustic beats, like an artful version of Madonna’s “Vogue.”

“[Shara] has a classical background, in addition to experience in hip-hop and punk rock and all kinds of different scenes,” said Smith. “She can just nail all these atonal melodies, so I’d have her blend into those as well.” He blended her voice into essentially a modern-classical chamber ensemble formed from some of the most adventurous free improvisers in New York, showcasing another dimension of Smith’s compositional acumen. Consider “Exit Shivers,” a bone-chilling, through-composed piece that amalgamates the timbral, improvisational and rhythmic into an unsettling panoply of sound that would function well with a modern Alfred Hitchcock movie, if such a thing existed.

Smith utilized the repetitive, polyrhythmic concepts from his studies in Haitian Voudou throughout the ensemble, sounding at times like a digital arpeggiator, or even a complex, EDM-type groove palette with layers of sound samples.

“One thing I noticed about the music Ches composed,” said James Brandon Lewis, who plays tenor saxophone on Laugh Ash, “some of this does sound sampled, but it’s actually written-out composition.” In fact, all of the music was recorded in real-time, no after-the-fact overdubbing or layering.

“He’s creating these repetitive structures with the strings, just gorgeous orchestrations, really hitting the sweet spots on those instruments,” Lewis continued, “and then of course [there’s] the punk stuff, mixing all the influences together … that’s where we get the really unique sound of music, when we’re at a point where it should be almost genre-less.”

Gordon McChesney Smith’s journey to a genre-less destination began as a teenager in Sacramento. He went to Rio Americano High School, long known for the strength of its jazz program, but Smith was never a part of it. “It was such a waste,” he joked. “I was playing drum set at the time, but playing in metal bands and my own bands and trying to write music. There was a teacher there who told me Steely Dan was jazz, so I thought that’s what jazz was. Then there was all this smooth jazz happening in Sacramento at the time — that basketball player Wayman Tisdale had a smooth jazz band — and I was like, oh, jazz, I don’t think that’s for me at all.”

Thankfully, Smith found a drum teacher who turned him on to Tony Williams and other jazz drummers, and he also found that a lot of the punk and rock musicians he knew outside of school were into late John Coltrane and other types of free jazz. As his curiosity in jazz piqued, he began to hang out with jazz students while studying philosophy at the University of Oregon in Eugene. One of his friends got him into a jazz combo mentored by pianist/organist Gary Versace, who was on faculty at the time. One of the requirements for participation was to learn and perform drum transcriptions from drummers ranging from Sonny Greer to Philly Joe Jones.

Smith’s next sojourn was back down to the Bay Area, where he began working local gigs. “I was jumping around to different scenes,” he recalled. “There was a totally free improv scene. I had my own heavy music band that I basically just dumped money into, and then tried to fund it with my jazz gigs, which is not a financially viable proposition.”

Smith recalled the challenges of crossing genres. “I remember I was on some straightahead gig, talking to a trumpet player, and he was like, you’re into punk rock — I don’t see how you could ever do that and jazz at the same time, in the same year, even. And I was like, ‘Yeah, you’re probably right, but I don’t know … .’”

Things started to change when he met and befriended bassist Devin Hoff on another jazz gig. “He was into like Ornette [Coleman] and Black Flag and all this stuff,” Smith said of Hoff. “He was the first person that admitted to liking all this other stuff — I kind of was hiding all the other stuff I was into from that [jazz] scene. I just didn’t think there was any mutual respect or communication between the different scenes there … whether that’s correct or not, I don’t know.”

The two of them formed their own duo called Good for Cows, giving Smith plenty of opportunities to compose. “It was just upright bass and drums, and he’d just be like, “Yeah, let’s write,” so I brought in stuff that I wrote on the piano and tried to make it work for just us.”

It was at this time that Smith also met percussionist William Winant while sitting in with a contemporary music ensemble at Mills College. Smith made such an impression at the school that faculty looked for ways to bring him into their master’s program on scholarship.

“I was a philosophy major in my undergrad,” Smith remembered. “One of the faculty members actually said, ‘Just meet with me once a week and we’ll start getting your harmony ready, so you can apply and be caught up with the grad students that are coming from conservatories.’”

It was at Mills where Smith began to write and perform music in a classical context. While he was there, he played drums for an Afro Haitian dance class, kindling a lifelong fascination of Haitian Voudou music.

Hoff and Winant were key figures in Smith’s foray deeper into the dual worlds of avant-garde music and experimental rock, working with Xiu Xiu and Secret Chiefs 3 — the latter formed from the core of another group, Mr. Bungle, for whom Winant had Smith sub for him on percussion. The bassist in that band was Trevor Dunn, whom Smith had been playing with in jazz settings.

“We went on the road, and we totally became friends. We kind of clicked,” Smith said of Dunn. “And [afterward] we did a trio free-improv gig, and that’s sort of where he got the idea to use me in one of his bands even though I was in the Bay at the time.”

Dunn had relocated to New York, and he brought Smith out frequently to play in Trio Convulsant, a band Dunn formed in 1998 featuring a promising young guitarist named Mary Halvorson.

“We became good friends pretty fast, and we remained good friends the whole time,” Halvorson said of Smith. “We still work together a lot today. In addition to being just an outstanding human being, he’s an incredible drummer, percussionist, vibraphonist. There’s also a real element of unpredictability to his playing … . He manages to simultaneously be really inside the music and really sensitive, but also could totally go off the rails at any moment.”

Halvorson and Smith bonded over a shared penchant for the extreme in their music. “Trevor’s concept behind that band was integrating jazz and experimentalism into one thing,” explained Halvorson. “You know, not everything being polite all the time, like an element of just punching you in the face sometimes.”

It was another decade before Smith would end up in New York. He decided first to try Los Angeles, with its untold opportunities to play many different kinds of music.

“I started getting calls for some pop touring,” he remembered, “but I instinctively avoided it. I’d be like, ‘Well, I have this door gig to play in New York, I don’t think I can do that six-week tour, you know?’ I was like, ‘God, am I stupid for turning this down?’ Because it’s always such a struggle, month to month, paying rent, but I just sort of knew that I didn’t want to go down that road, even though a lot of my friends that were good jazz musicians were doing that on the side.”

The fear of not having success in one’s ideal field of artistry leads many to compromise those very ideals. One artist who has built his reputation on defiantly not doing that is Zorn, who first met Smith in 2003 in San Francisco when Smith recorded one of Zorn’s klezmer pieces with Hoff and clarinetist Ben Goldberg. They continued to remain in contact through their shared circle of musical compatriots over the next decade, with Zorn eventually asking Smith to perform in a trio at the 2012 Marciac Jazz Festival. Afterward, Smith began to play with Zorn more and more regularly.

The experience proved to be a challenge for Smith. “We’re improvising the whole time but catching all this stuff in the score as well. I was like, oh, man, I gotta figure this out, because I don’t think it’s going great. [Zorn] just kept asking me to do it … and then it started clicking: I can try to do a ton of different stuff against the music and frame it in different ways.”

Said Zorn of Smith, “He is always growing, always learning, always moving forward. Every time we work together he’s better than the last. And in that sense, among many others, he is a true artist — a fearless seeker who epitomizes the breakthrough mentality, who will go anywhere, do anything, risk everything to take the music to the next level.”

“I talk to Zorn regularly about that stuff,” Smith said about his mentor’s no-holds-barred approach to art. “I agree with being uncompromising, but my personality type is much different, I know that much. I sort of have, I wouldn’t call it compromise, but cooperation built into me, so my music comes out way different because of that. I’m like a Libra middle child: I like to take situations and go, ‘How do I work with this or fit in with this?’ I’m not exactly the one dictating the whole situation.”

A curious, cooperative, collaborative mentality has worked for Smith, who has recorded more than 60 albums under his own name and with other artists.

“What I’m happy about is that it’s not like total freelance [work],” he said. “I wouldn’t even call the majority of that session work. I’m usually involved with those people, and their music, in pretty significant ways. I love to write music, but I don’t necessarily like leading. I don’t even really care if it’s my name on it.”

“Ches definitely is a very searching musician, and maybe that’s a quality people [in our community] share: having interest in all types of music and wanting to try to create something original, and also being really open,” said Halvorson.

“I feel like the whole community is this great big group, and we do subsections of that, and I’m into exploring other people’s music as well,” said Smith. “That part feels good about having a big output — it’s about relationships.”

The erstwhile rock drummer from Sacramento, in his curious pursuit of knowledge, has found himself in the greater universe of the music and musicians he has sought. DB

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