Wednesday, November 24, 2010

CD Review: Ches Smith & These Arches - Finally Out of My Hands

Ches Smith & These Arches
Finally Out of My Hands

Ches Smith's percussive know-how has landed him a variety of bands, including Mary Halvorson's trio/quintet, Marc Ribot's Ceramic Dog, Iggy Pop, and a doom metal/jazz bass-drums duet with bassist Devin Hoff (Nels Cline Singers). So it makes sense that the quartet that he has assembled for his debut as a leader falls somewhere between edgy jazz and brainy instrumental rock. Halvorson (guitar) joins her trio mate, along with Tony Malaby (tenor saxophone) and Andrea Parkins (accordion, organ, electronics), making it a bold combination of players.

"Anxiety Disorder" is a perfect song to kick off an album, for both its energy and its composition. Beginning almost like a Middle Eastern melody, with a droning pedal point and some great dissonant intervals from Halvorson in the intro, its second part of the theme shifts into a descending chord sequence that makes the entire thing sound more like an instrumental rock tune. Before you get too lost in it, Parkins turns into a car engine that won't turn over, wheezing and growling. Smith and Malaby break free along with her, and the whole band lands on a trail that recalls "Interstellar Overdrive," sans pointless doodles. This goes on for just a few choice minutes, and then Smith clicks everyone back into shape to take the theme out, though Malaby blows wild rather than sticking to the chart. If this type of music believed in hit singles, "Anxiety Disorder" would lead the pack.

The rest of the album follows a similar approach of structured heads leading to free improvisation. The compositions themselves vary widely, including but not limited to a slow piece full of tenor lines that have a strangled tone that comes off like a flute ("One Long Minute") to a plethora of stop-start racket and accordion noise ("Disgust for a Pathetic Chorale"). Usually the quartet wraps up the same way they began, but Smith varies exactly how each piece plays out. Halvorson and Malaby close the title track by themselves with an abridged version of the taut, legato theme, after a duel of reed shrieks and guitar skronk. "Sixteen Bars for Jail" just stops.

Smith comes across like a blend of John Bonham and Jim Black, playing thunderous beats like the Led Zeppelin anchor and on a kit that has the crisp attack and fleet direction of the Downtown New York jazz vet. He dubbed this band These Arches as a reflection of the way arches in structural bridges meet and support weight at their horizontal tensions. The arches in this case refer to the compositions, which balance structure and improvisation.

Finally Out of My Hands has a very concise feel to it. At 36 minutes, only one of the eight tracks lasts over six minutes, with most coming in around four. It would have been nice to hear the group stretch out a little more - with a pedigree like this, the results would always be worthy. Still, what's here contains a lot of zing, which is why it's going on my list of best for 2010.

(Side note to Skirl Records - I love your packaging, with 5 1/2" X 7 1/2" signature style covers and wild artwork, but please go with a bigger point size for the credits. I know that makes me sound old but this 40-something's eyes were crossing when I looked inside.)


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