Review: Ches Smith’s residency at the Stone (9/30 – 10/5/2014)

In the interests of my health, hearing, and sanity, I did not go to every single set in Ches Smith‘s 12-set residency at the Stone… but I did manage to catch ten of them. (It turns out that those 12-shows-a-week runs are a lot easier when you’re on vacation and not working a full-time day job at the same time.) Ches is one of my favorite drummers, but having been up in Cambridge for most of the last 15 years, I hadn’t had a chance to see that many of his bands. I’d seen him in Ceramic Dog and as a sideman in a few other people’s bands, but out of his own bands I’d only ever seen his trio with Mat Maneri and Craig Taborn. I loved that trio when we saw them at Winter Jazz Fest, so I was really looking forward to seeing what he would do with all of these other projects. And I was looking forward to seeing them all at the Stone since it’s such an intimate, up-close-and-personal venue with a great vibe. (As an aside, I’ve never been so happy to have fancy musician’s earplugs in my life as when I saw 10 drum-heavy sets in a row at the Stone while sitting as close as possible.)

Ches Smith with Ceramic Dog

These were the ensembles I saw:

1. We All Break – a meeting of Haitian Drums and Creative Music: Matt Mitchell (piano) Daniel Brevil (traditional Haitian percussion) Markus Schwartz (traditional Haitian percussion) Ches Smith (drums, percussion)
2. These Arches: Tim Berne (alto sax) Tony Malaby (tenor sax) Mary Halvorson (guitar) Andrea Parkins (accordion, electronics) Ches Smith (drums)
3. Ches Smith Quartet: Jonathan Finlayson (trumpet) Craig Taborn (piano) Stephan Crump (bass) Ches Smith (drums)
4. Congs for Brums: Ches Smith (drums, electronics)
5. A free improv trio: Matt Nelson (tenor sax) Henry Grimes (bass) Ches Smith (drums)
6. A different free improv trio: Tyshawn Sorey (drums, piano) Randy Peterson, Ches Smith (drums)
7. Ceramic Dog: Marc Ribot (guitar, vocals) Shahzad Ismaily (bass, drums, electronics) Ches Smith (drums, electronics)

I’m not sure if you really get the scope of the variety and breadth just from reading that list, but it was a wide-ranging week of music. Percussion instruments alone spanned all the way from traditional wooden drums made with leather and rope to electronic effects played via a smartphone and tablet. Genre-wise there were several flavors of jazz and new music as well as a more-or-less rock trio (Ceramic Dog).

I went in with open ears and I was somewhat surprised at what my favorites turned out to be. The quartet with Ches Smith, Jonathan Finlayson, Stephan Crump and Craig Taborn was truly excellent, especially the late set on Thursday night. They were playing Ches’s original compositions, and I was very impressed. I liked their sound so much that I’d decided I needed to stay for both sets before the first set even started, just from hearing them warm up. All four of them played well, and Stephan Crump seemed to be having an especially good time on bass. I had a great front row seat in the perfect spot to admire the trumpet player, Jonathan Finlayson:

Jonathan Finlayson

My other big favorite of the week was the Tyshawn Sorey/Randy Peterson/Ches Smith drum trio (although Mr. Sorey also played some piano, it was mainly percussion). Not only are they all master drummers, but they showed great creativity and wonderful improvisational skills as well. We sat in the front row and I could feel all the vibrations from the drum kits coming up through my feet and legs (all acoustic, none of the trashy “turn up the volume on the kick drum till it feels like you’re being repeatedly punched in the chest” like you get at bad rock clubs). Watching and listening to them was intense and exhilarating. Improvisation is in some ways the pinnacle of musicianship and live performance, and seeing such a shining example of it on Saturday night was a joyful experience for me. I would love to see them play as a trio again sometime.

Aside from those two clear favorites, I think the runners up were “We All Break” with the Haitian-style drumming on the first night, and the last set with Ceramic Dog. We All Break was really solid and provided a good introduction to the week by giving the audience both a taste of Ches’s compositions and a display of multiple styles of percussion from several different top-notch drummers.

Ceramic Dog is one of my all-time favorite bands (which should tell you how good those other sets were if they weren’t at the top of my list!) and they played a set that relied more on jamming and improvisation than they usually do, presumably because it was a short set at the Stone and the Stone is all about musical experimentation. It was mostly a great set, but they were just barely dragged off the podium into runner-up status because of the rather bizarre recitation that Marc Ribot did from what appeared to be one of those airline safety cards you get on planes that tell you what to do if the plane is about to fall out of the sky. That one didn’t really work for me as a concept (although I’ve quite enjoyed some of his other pieces that involved mining outside sources for ‘lyrics,’ like his special Mother’s Day song made entirely of quotes from “Psycho,” or that one song which alternated taking lines from a Grimm fairy tale and the writings of a Communist dictator.)

But I have to say – whether I appreciate the end result or not, I do like to see my favorite bands doing strange and experimental things. It wouldn’t be an experiment if you knew it would work ahead of time, after all… that’s the fun of going to someplace like the Stone, you never know what could happen – good or bad! The potential for disaster just adds to the excitement.

I filmed a bit of the Ceramic Dog concert, including this piece featuring some nice drummer close-ups:

Overall, a high-quality and very enjoyable week of live music. I’m probably ready to take a break from drums for a little while, but that’s my own fault, really. I mean, if I did smart things like not staying out until midnight every night for six days in a row watching drummers from three feet away, I probably would have called my blog something like “concerts in moderation,” and it would be boring, and no one would read it. đŸ˜‰

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