Jazz Album Review: Ches Smith’s “Interpret It Well” — Confident Improvisations

By Michael Ullman

I am not sure where the track titles come from, but I am guessing the problems the band had getting together under Covid must have something to do with them.

Ches Smith, Interpret It Well (Pyroclastic)

The preceding disc of drummer and sometime vibes player Ches Smith was the altogether remarkable Path of Seven Colors, a two disc set which was based on Voudou rituals. Interpret It Well seems, by contrast, less exotic but just as satisfying. Its personnel is the trio on Smith’s The Bell (ECM) but with one important addition. Besides Smith on drums and occasional vibes, the trio features two improvisational stars: pianist Craig Taborn and Mat Maneri on viola. There is no bass player: the session has an airy feel. To this trio, Smith has added guitarist Bill Frisell. He fits in seamlessly. But then Frisell seems able to fit in anywhere. (I once heard him in a church in Concord, Massachusetts with a country band.) I think he was kidding when, in a down beat interview in July, 2005, he described himself as confused about his own identity: “First I was an ECM guy, then I was a ‘downtown’ guy, then I was the Americana guy, the Nashville guy. Now I’m not sure what I am.” He implies, of course, that the problem is ours. What he is is a master improviser with an open mind.

It’s Frisell who begins Smith’s “Mixed Metaphor” with a gently yearning series of phrases on solo guitar. Gradually, and just as gently, Maneri sneaks in with a long held note, a kind of eerie groan, and Taborn adds a few single notes. Smith enters on vibes, and the whole is so subtly interactive that they sound like they are reading each other’s minds: at one point about six minutes in the vibes and piano play not against each other, but simultaneously as if they were one instrument. The long track (over sixteen minutes) is not static: it gradually builds a tension, especially when Maneri plucks a repeated phrase as if he were the bass player setting down a groove, in this case it is restrained enough to give Taborn and Smith, who is finally on drums, something to play off of. The rhythm is switched to piano, and Smith increases the intensity as Maneri solos. Soon everyone is improvising in what becomes a suddenly enlivened piece. In fact, “Mixed Metaphor” ends wildly as the players take turns soloing over an insistent background: Maneri’s viola dominating via a frantic solo that is followed up by Taborn.

I am not sure where the titles come from, but I am guessing the problems the band had getting together under Covid must have something to do with them. The session begins with the slightly claustrophobic short track “Trapped” and ends with “Depart,” which the notes point out is “Trapped” backwards. In the center is “Morbid,”  a quietly haunting number which seems controlled by Maneri’s long tones. “Clear Major” follows. It’s more sprightly, beginning with Taborn repeating a figure over which Frisell and Maneri improvise cheerily. Frisell supplies decorative, sharply etched notes and Maneri a melody. I Need More finds Frisell and Maneri stating the track’s fragmentary melody — really a rhythmic figure — in unison before the group improvisation.

The album’s title, Interpret It Well (also the name of one of its tracks) comes from a pen and ink drawing by Raymond Pettibon that is reproduced on the cover of the disc. “Interpret It Well” is written in the lower left hand corner. To my eye the drawing represents a set of train tracks disappearing into the distant horizon. There are a couple of telephone poles to the right and a single house and barn on the left. It could be that “Interpret It Well” signifies some kind of a threat. The music, though, reflects the sensitive skill of each member of the quartet, and their well-deserved confidence in each other and in each other’s contribution to the group improvisations.

Michael Ullman studied classical clarinet and was educated at Harvard, the University of Chicago, and the U. of Michigan, from which he received a PhD in English. The author or co-author of two books on jazz, he has written on jazz and classical music for the Atlantic Monthly, New Republic, High Fidelity, Stereophile, Boston Phoenix, Boston Globe, and other venues. His articles on Dickens, Joyce, Kipling, and others have appeared in academic journals. For over 20 years, he has written a bi-monthly jazz column for Fanfare Magazine, for which he also reviews classical music. At Tufts University, he teaches mostly modernist writers in the English Department and jazz and blues history in the Music Department. He plays piano badly.

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