Ches Smith and These Arches
June 14, 8:30 p.m. and 10 p.m., $12-$18, Firehouse 12, 45 Crown St., New Haven, (203) 785-0468, firehouse12.com
For Ches Smith, moving from the Bay Area to New York City several years ago didn't just mean a change in geography.
Back in California in the early aughts, the drummer worked in various groups while starting to get his own music together. "I always felt like I was developing my own thing on the side," Smith told the New Haven Advocate. "In the Bay Area they needed people who could play on their instruments... They didn't need particular players."
When he moved east, Smith discovered a demand for creative individualists, not just stylists. "There was a premium placed on people who could play like themselves," he said. "Although I don't want to say that's not like it was in the Bay Area; the guys in Mr. Bungle definitely encouraged that."
Mr. Bungle, Xiu Xiu, Secret Chiefs 3, John Zorn: all among Smith's working credits. He plays experimental rock, free-ish jazz, metal, art-noise punk, what-have-you, seemingly with equal enthusiasm. Genres hardly matter. "More and more, I try not to think in terms of genre," Smith said. "In a sense I never really have, but there is separation when I play either a loud or a quiet gig."
Secret Chiefs 3, for example, is harder-hitting music that requires stamina. "I kind of have to get in shape for that, but stuff on the quiet side, I might just warm up, use quieter sticks," Smith said. "But sometimes I'm dealing with piano and clarinet that aren't even mic-ed... Physically I have to think about it a little, but the process of learning the music: keeping track of what I need to play from band to band is enough."
Smith was hired by New York-based guitarist/composer Marc Ribot to play in Ceramic Dog years ago. He knew Ribot was interested in Cuban music, but Smith, a longtime student of Haitian Vodou drumming, worried he couldn't play Cuban rhythms.
"I said, 'I haven't played Cuban stuff for awhile,'" Smith said. "But that's not how Marc works. If there's chemistry, that's what he'll write for." He was skeptical of Ribot's approach, until they played together. "So it was more like I moved to New York and realized all this stuff I worked on my own," he said. "I could do that fully now."
With his own quintet, These Arches, Smith released Hammered, a second full-length release of his own compositions, in April. (They'll play at New Haven's Firehouse 12 on Friday, June 14.) It's a band full of leaders and non-conformists: guitarist Mary Halvorson, accordionist Andrea Parkins and saxophonists Tim Berne and Tony Malaby (who'll be absent from the New Haven show).
"I like things to push me into different areas as well," Smith said. "Usually the people I play with want that from me as well... [When I was forming These Arches] I didn't want people on instruments. I wanted those people. If people think about me that way, then that's a great thing."
On Hammered, the boundaries — between composition and improvisation, between expansive jazz and experimental rock — are nearly always blurred. (Smith has referred to his compositions as "sort of rock reject tunes.") Smith's pieces name-check his influences; "Frisner," the opening track, was named for Frisner Augustin, master Vodou drummer and Smith's teacher before he passed away last year, while "Wilson Phillip" honors Phillip Wilson, a deceased drummer for the Art Ensemble of Chicago and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Xiu Xiu's Jamie Stewart gets a nod on the restless "Learned From Jamie Stewart." (Smith and These Arches plan to collaborate with Stewart on an upcoming set of Nina Simone compositions.)
Bassist Devin Hoff, a member of the first incarnation of These Arches, will perform with his former group at Firehouse 12. With Hoff participating, "the focus has shifted down about an octave or so," Smith said. "In this band, Mary uses an octave pedal a lot. She just started enjoying improvising, and I made sure she kept it with Devin. They've been getting into this crazy low-end stuff together... Now I'm considering, for the next record, to include Devin with the existing quintet... It's nice to write a fresh set of music with the whole sonic spectrum."
In July, Smith heads out on tour with Berne's quartet. He'll also work on an extensive Vodou-inspired piece this summer for a November performance in Amsterdam.
"I don't know how it's going to come together," Smith said. "I've been studying the music for so long. I'm not sure if what I write is going to be perceived as too out. But I want to honor what's going on in Haitian music and also what interests me about it... People are always asking me about [Vodou] music, and I want this other world to know what I'm into."