Ches Smith, in a dark suit and with his visible right hand holding a stick, behind a drum set
Ches Smith’s compositions blur the distinction between the planned and the collectively improvised © Margaux Rodrigues

The sense of unease that permeates Interpret it Well, Ches Smith’s 10th release, is conjured with minimalist lines, vibrant tones and a strong collective will. It enters with sparse Craig Taborn piano and is sustained until the reverberating twang of Bill Frisell’s guitar fades the album to a close.

Smith plays vibraphone on both short pieces, subtly shading the motif of the opener “Trapped” and adding a surreal sheen to Frisell’s rasp on “Deppart” — “trapped” spelt backwards ­— the album’s final track. Elsewhere, Smith’s vibraphone sonics glimmer and gleam, or he adds elliptic art-rock beats from a full set of drums.

Smith’s compositions, blurring the distinction between the planned and the collectively improvised, depend on empathetic support. This album adds guitarist Frisell to the long-established trio of Smith, pianist Taborn and viola-player Mat Maneri that won rave reviews at London’s Vortex in 2016. And on this record, their powers remain undiminished. As before, thematic fragments cohere into sturdy shapes — four of the remaining five tracks are around 15 minutes long ­— and enigmatic moods are the order of the day. But now, that intriguing shadowland of sound is enhanced by Frisell’s trademark resonance and unerring sense of the surreal.

Album cover of ‘Interpret It Well’ by Ches Smith

The title track, launched by the playful bounce of Smith’s vibes, comes two numbers in; acerbic piano, the scrape of viola and Frisell’s blues-inflected lines soon add a darker edge. Around the halfway mark Smith switches to drums, and the piece moves to a climax of grainy abstraction. The following “Mixed Metaphor” also features a midpoint turn from vibes to drums. Here the scene is set by expansive Frisell guitar, lines fracture with menace and the final pulse is sharply defined.

One piece, the drum-free “Morbid”, sustains wraithlike textures and a downbeat mood, but the rest of the album continues to change tack; “Clear Major” begins with a zippy Taborn riff and “I Need More” a twisty viola pulse. Counterpoint lines add rhythmic thrust, solos emerge and dynamic changes, cued from within, maintain the album’s fascinating grip.

★★★★☆

Interpret It Well’ is released by Pyroclastic Records

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