Ches Smith and These Arches

Hammered
Clean Feed CF 270 CD

Ingrid Laubrock’s Anti House

Strong Place

Intakt CD 208

Guitarist Mary Halvorson may be the connection between these two New York-centred quintet sessions, yet their striking individuality results from who’s sitting behind the drum kit. On Hammered, Ches Smith, whose experience encompasses drumming for rock bands such as Secret Chiefs 3, brings a punkish energy to an affiliation with certified New York downtowners. Meanwhile, although Strong Place is under saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock’s leadership – she also composed all the tunes – much of the disc’s definition comes from the laid-back rhythm strategy of drummer Tom Rainey, who usually fronts a trio filled out by the German-born tenor and soprano saxophonist and Halvorson. Other players on Strong Place include pianist Kris Davis, who is Canadian, and bassist John Hébert who isn’t, despite the way he spells his last name.

Aptly titled, Hammered is an all-American affair, with the band also including saxophonists Tim Berne and Tony Malaby plus Andrea Parkins on accordion, organ and electronics. In truth it’s often Parkins’ push-button judders and bellows smears which define the eight Smith compositions, with the pieces otherwise enlivened by over-the-top percussion tropes, semi-atonal guitar licks and blustering reed slurs. There isn’t a better demonstration of this strategy than the title track. Continuously rushing forwards, the narrative is driven by drum slams and glancing guitar twangs plus an almost impenetrable wall of accordion pumps. When one saxophonist quotes a sliver of “Ghosts” you realize how Albert Ayler would have sounded fronting a Heavy Metal band.

This elaboration of Punk-Jazz continues throughout Smith’s eight compositions, with nearly every track built up from a powerful rhythmic foundation, but with the contrapuntal exposition varied enough to impress. There are sections of “Frisner” for instance that reach background smoothness helped by Parkins’ organ glissandi, although the bouncy theme is mostly concerned with contrapuntal showdowns between Halvorson’s static distortion and the saxophonists’ machine-gun-like volleys of growls. There’s a certain Celtic lilt to “This Might Be a Fade Out” – with its multiple pauses – reminiscent of the history of Parkins’ tremolo instrument. But it’s Smith’s marimba-like plinks and armonica-like rubs which tame the horns’ contrasting multiphonics creating a joyous romp.

With its circular guitar picking, pecking horns and accordion smears, “Animal Collection” sounds like a tune Henry Threadgill would have composed for his Very, Very Circus band. While the drummer’s irregular plops and some angled electronic oscillations from Parkins confirm its stabbing individuality, serendipitously one tune on Laubrock’s set is dedicated to Threadgill. That track, “Cup in a Teastorm” with its downward guitar frails and upwards saxophone trills, is more modulated up-tempo swing than anything from the Threadgill catalogue, though. Once Rainey adds rolls and bumps and Davis some Boppy comping, the vibe is almost Caribbean, not Chicagoan.

Substituting a piano for accordion and double bass for one of the saxophones also gives Strong Place more of a sophisticated veneer than Hammered. This is especially true on the title track which is initially a moderato showcase for guitar and bass with echoes of the 1950s hit “I Dreamed”, but is rescued from treacle by discordant reed whistling. More broadly, Hébert’s scene-setting bass vamp is what gives pieces like “Der Deichgraf” their shape. Grounded by double-bass pumps, this stirring romp upticks to series of broken-octave face-offs. Mostly in duet form, the challenges involve slurry sax lines, kinetic piano glisses and splayed notes from the guitarist. For the finale, the saxophonist’s echoing vamp harmonizes with the others’ lines. Additionally, with its unhackneyed string fretting, keyboard comping and focused drum beat “From Farm Girl to Fabulous Vol.1” could easily fit into the book of any far-sighted contemporary combo.

Sophisticated doesn’t have to mean soporific however, and the band injects enough high-frequency piano clanks, reed-biting spits and emphasized guitar snaps to keep things constantly interesting throughout.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Hammered: 1. Frisner 2. Wilson Phillip 3. Dead Battery 4. Hammered 5. Limitations 6. Learned From Jamie Stewart 7. Animal Collection 8. This Might Be a Fade Out

Personnel: Hammered: Tim Berne (alto saxophone); Tony Malaby (tenor saxophone); Andrea Parkins (accordion, organ and electronics); Mary Halvorson (guitar) and Ches Smith (drums and percussion)

Track Listing: Strong: 1. An Unfolding 2. Der Deichgraf 3. Count ‘Em (for Richard Foreman) 4. From Farm Girl to Fabulous Vol.1 5. Alley Zen 6. Strong Place (for Emanuella) 7. Cup in a Teastorm (for Henry Threadgill) 8. Here's to Love

Personnel: Strong: Ingrid Laubrock (tenor and soprano saxophones); Kris Davis (piano); Mary Halvorson (guitar); John Hébert (bass) and Tom Rainey (drums)