Artist Feature

Ches Smith
By Ken Waxman

To exaggerate a bit, it appears that there was never a time in his life that Ches Smith wasn’t playing drums. Even today at 40, the Brooklyn-based percussionist seems to rarely move from behind his kit. Besides leading his own groups, which include the These Arches quintet, a couple of trios and his Good for Cows duo with bassist Devin Hoff, Smith is kept busy as a sideman in bands led by among others Tim Berne, Marc Ribot and Mary Halvorson, plus indie-rock stalwarts such as Xiu Xiu and Secret Chiefs 3. There’s also his Congs for Brums solo percussion project; and he can sometime be found in NYC’s outskirts participating in extended vodou drum ceremonies.

Excepting the rock bands, all of Smith’s affiliations are on display during his six-day residency at The Stone this month. “I try to keep a balance between my leader and my sideman work, but I’m not a real band leader,” he admits. “I book the gigs and pay the band, but other than that I don’t tell people what to do. I just try to balance strong, disparate personalities. But I also do a lot of writing, so the best way to have it played is to lead a band.”

Born in Sacramento, Calif., by the time he was six, Smith and his slightly older brother were taking turns trying to outdo one another playing along on a used drum set with whatever rock songs were on the radio. Soon Smith was playing weekends with local rock bands, something that continued all through high school and his undergraduate years studying philosophy at University of Oregon. Along the way he took some drum lessons from Dave Storrs and later from Pete Magadini after moving to the Bay area in 1995. He wanted to check out a larger jazz scene, but while looking for steady gigs there, he cooked pizza at night and spent his days practicing and transcribing recorded solos by Philly Joe Jones, Max Roach, Art Blakey and other drum masters.

Then fate intervened. “There was an ad in the paper from a tuba player who was looking for someone to play with, but when I got in touch with him he told me he was playing in a band affiliated with Milles College, where musicians from the community could also play. He wanted me to join. He said Fred Frith was coming to rehearse us and play a concert with us. Up till that I was little reticent as I wasn’t too experienced in the new music the ensemble specialized in.”

Smith underestimated himself. In the ensemble Smith met percussionist William Winant and composer/conductor Steed Cowart, who agreed he was skilled enough to receive a scholarship to study percussion at Mills, even without an undergraduate degree in music. Cowart even coached him in harmonies to pass the audition. Under Winant’s guidance Smith began exploring other forms of music and playing mallet instruments. That in turn led to him filling in for Winant at some jobs with Trevor Dunn’s Mr. Bungle. “I had just started to play vibes and there was all this difficult work with marimba and xylophone,” he recalls. “I just kept my head down and read the score.” Smith graduated from Mills with a Masters in percussion performance in 2002

Besides Dunn, other musicians he met and played with at Mills included Ben Goldberg, and Hoff. In fact, The Good for Cows duo started then when the person with whom they decided to form a trio missed rehearsals. Smith and Hoff found that merely playing off and improving on what each other composed was complete in itself. Congs for Brums was born then too. “My wife and I were joking around and we came up with a variation of ‘Songs for Drums’,” he explains.

Smith has already put a free short Congs for Brums video on bandcamp and plans to make it available on his own web site during his Stone residency. Over the years he’s even managed to present a solo percussion set as an opening act for indie-rock bands. Both his indie-rock and indie-jazz connections finally convinced him to move east in 2008. Europe – where he often toured – was that much closer, and he was already a member of several NYC bands. First Dunn set up a trio with Halvorson and Smith; then Shahzad Ismaily, who plays in Secret Chiefs 3, introduced him to Ribot and the Ceramic Dog was born. In 2009 Berne asked Smith to join his Snakeoil band he’s been playing with Berne ever since. Although Smith concedes that after weeks of playing the same set every night in a rock show makes him yearn for a break, his idea is to play original music, no matter what it’s called. The indie-rock bands with which he associates include a high percentage of improvisation, he states.

It’s this search for originality that brought him to Haitian drumming. As part of his scholarship at Mills he had to play for dance classes, but Haitian rhythms were initially baffling. After a while though, with the encouragement of traditional drummers such as Daniel Brevil, he became familiar enough with the music so that he now participates in vodou ceremonies. Located in basements in Flatbush and Queens, the performances, featuring only percussionists and vocalists usually last for hours. “At first I was intimidated,” he admits, but now that he’s taken Haitian drum lessons from John Amira, Frisner Augustin and Brevil, he’s become more assured. In fact he thinks he may record We All Break, the Haitian drum project that includes pianist Matt Mitchell and another drummer as well as Brevil and himself. But, he cautions, it’s his own variant of the music. “It would be a mix of traditional Haitian music, Western Art music with lots of free stuff,” he explains. One band that has definitely plans to record though is his new trio with pianist Craig Taborn and violist Mat Maneri. Although the compositions will all be his, each member gets equal billing.

Besides obvious talent, it’s this cooperative spirit which has likely been responsible for Smith being so in-demand. “I just like to be part of a pool of good players,” he insists modestly.

Recommended Listening:

• Mat Mitchell Fiction (Pi Recordings 2013)

• Tim Berne Shadow Man (ECM 2013)

• Ches Smith and These Arches Hammered (Clean Feed 2013

• Ches Smith's Congs for Brums Psycho Predictions 88 Records 2012)

• Marc Ribot's Ceramic Dog Party Intellectuals (PI Recordings 2008)

—For The New York City Jazz Record October 2014