Drummer & percussionist Ches Smith is a ubiquitous presence in New York’s improvised music scenes, performing with a wide range of ensembles, including his trio with Craig Taborn and Mat Maneri, Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog, and with musicians like Matana Roberts, Wadada Leo Smith, Fred Frith, and Trevor Dunn, not to mention his own projects, Congs for Brums and These Arches. On top of it all, Smith still felt the need for a new band that would experiment and perform regularly around New York.
Enter Smith’s new quartet: Featuring guitarists Mary Halvorson and Liberty Ellman, plus bassist Nick Dunston, this sixteen-stringed ensemble is rounded out by Smith on drums, electronics, vibraphone, glockenspiel, and a range of other percussion instruments. This Thursday, the group will perform at The Jazz Gallery, featuring a book of entirely new music, written for the band. We caught up with Smith via phone, and dove right in to his composition process, his thoughts on the new group, and his take on new music in New York today.
The Jazz Gallery: What are you up to today?
Ches Smith: I went to the gym, I practiced, and now I’m talking to you before heading off to a rehearsal.
TJG: So you’re an early morning guy?
CS: I have a kid, so that helps–or doesn’t, depending on how you look at it [laughs]. My wife took him to the bus stop this morning, so I had a little extra time.
TJG: Can you tell me about your morning routine? I don’t know how many other musicians in New York are getting to the gym and practicing before 9 A.M.
CS: There are probably a few of them, the ones who have kids [laughs]. Normally I wake up around 6:30am, get stuff ready for my son, and walk with him to the bus stop by 7:15. I might need to do email for a while, depending on what I have going on. It’s important that I stay on top of emails, particularly when I have tours of my own, especially in Europe, because they’re farther ahead in time. After that, I’ll often have a rehearsal, but usually I can work on music for a few hours before that. That can mean writing, or practicing one of several instruments.
TJG: When you have limited time, how are you able to get into a flow where you can practice exactly what you’ll need for that day?
CS: It’s not too hard anymore, I can pretty much get right into it. I’m playing with Anna Webber at the Gallery on Monday night, so right now I’m practicing her music. I’ve been immersed in finishing the music for my Gallery gig on Thursday, and I’ve had it in mind that I should really check out Anna’s music before our rehearsal. I didn’t remember any vibraphone stuff, but when I printed it out and looked at it, I said “Oh yes… there’s some vibraphone stuff in here” [laughs]. There’s one passage that’s really difficult, with a few lines happening at once, so I started on it last night after my son went to sleep. It’s under sixteen bars, so it’s a good finite goal for something I can get together before a rehearsal. I also have all these glockenspiel parts for the show with my quartet at the Gallery, so I’ve been practicing those as well.
TJG: I’ve sifted through your discography, and I see that you’ve played on a few of Mary Halvorson’s records. Have you done anything with this quartet of Mary, Liberty, and Nick?
CS: No, this is the first gig for this quartet, and the premiere of this music too.
TJG: How did the idea for this group come together?
CS: My first idea was to try to find a band that could work more reliably. I have a few groups right now, each in various stages of being able to work regularly. For example, We All Break is a group with several Haitian drummers, one of whom lives in California, so I have to choose those dates carefully. Then there’s my trio with Craig Taborn and Mat Maneri, and between the three of us, we’re so busy. Craig is really busy, and we tend to have opposite schedules.
My second idea was doing something that involved Mary Halvorson, one of my best friends. We haven’t done a lot of playing together in the last three or four years, and I really want to do more. She was one of my first musical connections in New York, and was the first person I thought of for this band. She’s super busy and is doing a lot of great stuff right now, and I didn’t want to bog her down with more gigs [laughs]. But I called her to ask if she was too busy, and she said “If it’s for you, I’ll do it for sure.” I’ve always liked bands with two guitars, and I’ve been playing with Liberty Ellman on and off, with Matana Roberts and a few others. He’s got a unique approach to improvisation and space, and Mary and Liberty like each others’ playing a lot, so I figured this would be fun.
I’d been curious about Nick Dunston for a while. He was recommended to me through Marc Ribot, who made a point to tell me about Nick and all the things he likes about his playing. I wanted to check him out, and over the last few weeks we’ve started playing together with a friend of ours from Brussels, Raf Vertessen.
TJG: Oh yes, I recently interviewed Adam O’Farrill about playing with him.
CS: Exactly. Raf wrote trio music with me on vibraphone and Nick on bass, so we just did a gig together the other night. Nick is a really interesting player, with unique improvisation ideas, and I’ve seen him play straight-ahead too, and do his own thing, which is almost in the new music realm, from what I’ve seen.
TJG: You mentioned you put the group together to play more around town and work more regularly. You also mentioned that you’re finishing a book of new music for this band. What’s the music like, and does it reflect that mission of the band for you?
CS: Yeah, it reflects that mission. I wanted a band of improvisers that I could use to try more pieces on. I spend a lot of time writing, and usually I’m stripping things away, but I do a ton of editing to try to get it to where the music has the minimum amount of information possible. Each starts as a full piece, and usually I’m trying to remove sections, streamline melodies and rhythms: I try to get to the core of each idea. One of them turned out to just be four bars. This kind of process is an extension of an idea I was working on with Craig Taborn and Mat Maneri. This quartet has some really minimal pieces, and some more slowly through-composed things with sections broken up. I play a lot of that kind of music with various bandleaders, but this particular music has more prescribed elements. Usually it’s based on a harmonic idea or some set of intervals, and I try to spin a whole piece out of that.
TJG: Do you think you’ll get a rehearsal in before the gig?
CS: Yeah, we’re rehearsing Monday. We’ll probably meet and run some stuff at soundcheck too. I’m sure we could play a set of free music and I’d be happy with that as well, but I think we may, depending on how rehearsal goes, stick to four or five pieces per set, with different tunes for each set. We’ll play each one for a long time, really extrapolate out and dive into it. I’ll see what they want to do.
TJG: Are there combinations of these musicians that you’re looking forward to, certain duos or trios that you’ve been writing with them in mind?
CS: Yes, there are. When I first started writing this music, a lot of my original ideas were between Mary and Liberty, because those are the two people I know the most in this quartet. I’ve also seen Nick do a lot of interesting stuff with harmonics, which was confirmed by the gig the other day, so that’s why I brought the glockenspiel in, to interact with those kinds of sounds. I’m playing electronics as well. I feel like each of these players has a whole vocabulary of extended techniques, and I think the extra percussion and electronics can create interesting results with those extended techniques in mind.
TJG: What kind of electronics rig and extra percussion are you using for these shows?
CS: It’s all on an iPad or phone right now, but I’ve developed the system over the years, first with my solo music and later with Marc Ribot’s band, Ceramic Dog. There’s a sampler in a Moog app that plays things at different speeds, and you can really mess with the parameters of the sample. I’ve been writing and recording simple samples, maybe on a Moog keyboard or some sort of synthesizer. I’ll record the glockenspiel and make short samples, three seconds, maybe, with minimal material like two or three notes, a chord, a short melody. The speed changes the pitch too, so you can get messed-up, out-of-tune things as well. I use a bunch of metal percussion too, which is not exactly ‘un-pitched,’ but isn’t tuned to equal temperament. All together, it creates a wall of sound with all these harmonics flying around, juxtaposed with straight-up regular harmony and regular tuning.
TJG: You’ve played gigs at Le Poisson Rouge, Nublu, and The Stone this month, and I know you spend a lot of time in California and on the road. What’s your read on the creative music scene in New York right now?
CS: It feels strong. People compare it to how it was in the nineties, before I was here, and I can’t really speak to that, but a lot of the older musicians I play with say it’s just as strong now, it’s just different. I find that there’s a ton of great music, and a good amount of venues, especially coming from California, where it was hard to find places that wouldn’t close three months after opening [laughs]. Here, there are so many players doing interesting things.
The Jazz Gallery in particular has really supported people through commissions, grants, all that stuff. They allow people to try things out. Same with The Stone. There’s never a hassle about bringing in a band that will pack the room. Of course, it would be great if every show was packed, but you have to be able to experiment for the music to move forward. People come out, and it’s been encouraging. I like New York for all those reasons.
TJG: Regarding the Gallery, especially since you’ll be playing with Anna Webber’s Septet on Monday for the release of her album Clockwise, how does The Jazz Gallery fit into your musical life?
CS: I can always hear younger and older musicians there. Especially on the younger side, there are always musicians playing there that I don’t know yet. That’s a good reason to go when I’m in town. It’s a little tricky for me to get out of the house when I’m not playing: If I’m on tour five months a year, then come back, I can’t say “Okay, I’m taking off to hear a show!” [laughs]. But I’ve been finding ways to hear new music as my son gets older, and the Gallery is a place where all sorts of approaches to jazz are represented. You can hear free stuff, you can hear changes, you can hear it all there. Also, it’s been hospitable to different art openings, like the recent John Rogers solo show. The Jazz Gallery feels like a place where, if you have an idea, you can get ahold of Rio and probably get it happening. The Stone is great too, but right now if you’re playing there, you’ll be doing a full week. That’s a whole other thing, and a great way to get into the music, but The Jazz Gallery is better for one-off things. You can hear a show from an artist, and six months or a year later they’ll come back and do something else.
TJG: Last question: I’ve been checking out your newest release, COMPLETE AND TONAL DISASTER. Could you give me a short blurb on what the album is?
CS: Sure. That was my first interaction with the Moog sampler app I was talking about, and I got to tour that music before I recorded it. I was trying to get in the cracks of the vibraphone’s equal temperament and explore different tunings and ‘out-of-tunings.’ A lot of those melodies were originally written on the drums, so the scales are essentially limited to six notes that I can get from depressing the skin of the drum and changing the pitch as I play it. I was working on etudes that I wrote for myself, I learned the melodies on vibes, recorded samples, and started mixing it all together. The material is modular, so each piece is simply as-it-was in that moment, not a definite arrival point based on what I was planning beforehand.
TJG: Thanks for taking the time to chat, and good luck with the upcoming shows.
CS: Thank you, I’ll need it for Anna’s show on Monday [laughs]!
The Ches Smith New Quartet plays The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, January 31, 2019. The group features Mr. Smith on drums & percussion, Mary Halvorson & Libery Ellman on guitars, and Nick Dunston on bass. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members), $20 reserved cabaret seating ($10 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.