Name: Ches Smith
Occupation: Drummer, vibraphonist, composer
Current release: Ches Smith's Interpret It Well, featuring his quartet with guitarist Bill Frisell, violist Mat Maneri and keyboardist Craig Taborn, is out via Pyroclastic.
If you enjoyed this interview with Ches Smith, visit his official homepage for more information. He is also on Instagram, and twitter.
Over the course of his career, Ches Smith has collaborated and appeared on recordings with a wide range of artists, including Jessica Pavone, Carla Bozulich, Trevor Dunn, David Torn, Darius Jones, Nels Cline, Xiu Xiu, and Sara Schoenbeck.
[Read our Jessica Pavone interview]
[Read our Carla Bozulich interview]
[Read our Trevor Dunn interview]
[Read our David Torn interview]
[Read our Darius Jones interview]
[Read our Nels Cline interview]
[Read our Xiu Xiu interview]
[Read our Sara Schoenbeck interview]
When did you first start getting interested in musical improvisation?
I started in high school. I followed, and then became part of a scene of punks, wierdos, even metalheads in Sacramento who taught me that jazz, free jazz, all periods of John Coltrane, and Charlie Parker were cool.
These musicians were older than me, so I took them seriously, and tried to emulate them by being open-minded.
Which artists, approaches, albums or performances involving prominent use of improvisation captured your imagination in the beginning?
John Coltrane’s OM, Miles Davis Quintet's Nefertiti. I caught live gigs with Derek Bailey, John Tchicai, the Bill Frisell Trio, and Splatter Trio.
[Read our interview with Ginor Robair of Splatter Trio]
Focusing on improvisation can be an incisive transition. Aside from musical considerations, there can also be personal motivations for looking for alternatives. Was this the case for you, and if so, in which way?
Yeah, a little bit I suppose. I didn‘t fit in with the jocks or popular kids, especially in high school. I fell in with two groups who were more into causing trouble and didn’t care what the cool kids thought. One group who played music, and the other who just, well, caused trouble.
The musical group were into the Residents, hardcore, quasi-free improv, and basically noise, among other things. I followed their thinking, and used music to try to forge a new identity.
What was your own learning curve / creative development like when it comes to improvisation - what were challenges and breakthroughs?
When I started at like 14 or 15, it was just like, “listen and play.” We didn’t distinguish between “improvising” and “jamming.” Then I went through an intense study of bebop and was trying to become fluent in that language, but at the same time was still playing “free” in a lot of contexts.
Then I ended up at Mills College, and that was more or less a formal study of improvisation. Like, everything was up for critique. It could lead one to believe some performances practices are acceptable and others are not. As a friend who was there with me said afterward, “I’ve never been more afraid to improvise as when I was at Mills.”
Then, much further down the road, playing in a group with Craig Taborn and Mat Maneri really taught me about absolute commitment. That has to be there.
Tell me about your instrument and/or tools, please. How would you describe the relationship with it? What are its most important qualities and how do they influence the musical results and your own performance?
I’m primarily a drum set player, and also play percussion and electronics; my percussion playing is focused on the vibraphone and Haitian traditional drums.
There is a wide range of sound and tendencies among all those instruments. A commonality is that, with the exception of my electronics setup, the only way to sustain a sound (without it dying out eventually), is to play a roll.
I like having the vibraphone or glockenspiel because it allows me to interact on harmonic and melodic levels with the other instrumentalists. I keep that mindset when I’m on the drums too, but it’s more metaphorical.
Can you talk about a work, event or performance in your career that's particularly dear to you? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
The We All Break album Path of Seven Colors. It feels special because I got to collaborate on a deep level with many of my teachers and friends in the Haitian Vodou tradition, in particular master drummer and songwriter Daniel Brevil.
For me, it was informed by the work I had been doing on the NYC Haitian Vodou scene since 2009 or so. The band started in 2013 as a quartet, but through the development of personal and musical connections, it expanded to an octet by the time we recorded in 2020.
My idea was always to write music for improvisers in my current jazz and improvised music scenes, where the Vodou drummers could do their thing in the traditional way. This involved training the “jazzers” in the Vodou rhythms and song structures. In other words, the compositions and improvised sections worked with the traditional drums and songs.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your collaborations? Do you feel as though you are able to express yourself more fully in solo mode or, conversely, through the interaction with other musicians? Are you “gaining” or “sacrificing” something in a collaboration?
I am a natural collaborator, probably due to me being a middle child, and/or a libra. I’ve always felt like myself when in a group setting. In fact, when I started doing solo shows regularly with my Congs For Brums project in 2006, it took me a long time to not hate it.
I think adding electronics to my set up, and allowing the inevitable mistakes and out-of-control moments gave me something to react and respond to—that is when I started enjoying it, because it felt more like “a group,” instead of only me providing the input.
When you're improvising, does it actually feel like you're inventing something on the spot – or are you inventively re-arranging patterns from preparations, practise or previous performances?
At its best, it feels like I or we are inventing on the spot. That feeling is what keeps me coming back to this music.
There are of course plenty of moments where it feels like I’m rearranging patterns, and in fact I work on that when I’m practicing. But on a gig I’m working through those moments to try to arrive at what feels like magic.
To you, are there rules in improvisation? If so, what kind of rules are these?
I really think no, there are no rules. But, playing in other people’s bands, I am routinely obliged to deal with other bandleaders’ sets of rules, whether spoken or unspoken.
I like that part, getting into other people’s “systems.” It keeps me growing.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? In which way is it different between your solo work and collaborations?
Fear gets in the way, and curiosity helps a lot. For me this is the case both in solo and collaborative playing.
How do you see the relationship between sound, space and performance and what are some of your strategies and approaches of working with them?
The sound and performance space has a big impact on the gig. I try to “play the room,” which can include a range of things from oversaturating it on purpose to trying to make it pleasant for the listener.
My trio with Craig Taborn and Mat Maneri were on tour one time, and we went from a tight, dry room one night to this massive, cavernous museum space the next. We were accustomed to making drastically different iterations of the compositions from night to night anyway, so we were kind of set up to deal with this change in the sound environment.
I remember it being a good and very interesting gig, even in this room that was not conducive to rhythmic music at all. I have a feeling it was a good one because we had that curve ball to deal with.
Similarly, Tim Berne used to put together his set lists for his Snakeoil band after we had soundcheck, really taking into consideration what the room sounded like, and what kind of writing (and improvising) would work best in there.