A Paradigm-Shifting Mashup of Mesmerizing Haitian Drumming and Jazz on Ches Smith’s New Album
Every nation from the Caribbean and points further south with a diasporic African population has a vibrant tradition of communal drumming. Of all those countries, it’s arguably Haiti which has the most otherworldly, shamanic style. Some might debate that: Ras Michael and whichever Sons of Negus are still with us, and no doubt some Spanish Harlem salseros, just for starters. While there’s been a vital Haitian jazz and traditional music scene in New York for decades, we have drummer Ches Smith to thank for helping bring those hypnotically booming sounds to a wider audience.
Smith has a fascinating new album, Path of Seven Colors streaming at Bandcamp. It’s a logical follow-up to his similarly magical 2015 record We All Break (which is included as a twofer along with the new one). What’s new is that he’s expanded the original quartet – which also includes pianist Matt Mitchell plus tanbou drummers Daniel Brevil and Markus Schwartz. Haitian singer Sirene Dantor Rene, alto sax brujo Miguel Zenón, bassist Nick Dunston and third tanbou master Fanfan Jean-Guy Rene complete an inspired, innovative lineup.
While the group’s game plan is to break new ground, make no mistake, this music is meant to summon the spirits. Beyond the improvisation, this is a very collective effort, Smith bringing in the instrumental parts, Brevil contributing both original and traditional songs. They open the album with an understatedly joyous call-and-response over Mitchell’s hypnotically rhythmic drive in Woule Pou Mwen. Zenon adds balletesque flutter and exuberant wails in Here’s the Light, Rene and Brevil engaging in a punchy call-and-response that goes straight back to Africa as the drums do the same on the low end. The subtle shifts in syncopation behind Mitchell’s brightly cascading solo are artful: Dizzy Gillespie may have started all this a long time ago, but this is a brand-new variant.
Rene’s shivery, brittle vibrato contrasts with the calm of the guys in the band in Leaves Arrive, a diptych. The first part is a seemingly festive invocation, Zenon working increasingly electrifying variations on the cheery central riff as Mitchell’s dark, circling chords and Smith’s cymbals crash underneath. Likewise, Zenon’s spirals and graceful, precise articulation take centerstage over hypnotic, hard-hitting teamwork in Women of Iron, Mitchell taking giant steps to meet the spirits as the song peaks out.
The album’s big epic is Lord of Healing, Mitchell building warmly glistening nocturnal ambience as Dunston hovers sepulchrally on the fringe. A long ceremonial call-and-response gives way to a rapidfire Mitchell solo while the bass and drums run the vocal riff, then subtly go doublespeed while Zenon bounces and chooses his spots. The band punctuate the briskly undulating drum circle, piano and sax eventually pushing the beat toward a swaying coda.
With Raw Urbane, Smith works the pattern backwards. The drums get an incantatory triplet rhythm going below Mitchell’s animated ripples and chromatic runs. With Zenon’s solo bobbing and scampering, it’s the closest thing here to straight-up postbop, until the triumphant chorus of vocals kicks in.
The ghostly insistence of the piano-and-bass intro to the album’s title track is unexpectedly stunning; the looping, loping groove (sounds like an implied halfspeed triplet thing) is also very cool. Zenon shifts around like the late, great Marvelous Marvin Hagler as Mitchell crushes in tandem with the drums, then it’s the saxophonist’s turn. It’s the real piece de resistance on the record.
They close with The Vulgar Cycle, Rene and Brevil taking turns over a briskly galloping groove, Mitchell sprinting through a nimble series of cascades before Zenon takes over with a steely, rapidfire focus.
The piano has seldom been employed as a percussion instrument as much as it is on the 2015 album, which is considerably darker. Mitchell (and the band’s) resolve to play everything live without a loop pedal is all the more impressive considering the amount of relentless, icepick pedalpoint and how many drum breaks there are. Its many highlights include a trance-inducing chorus straight out of Moroccan gnawa music. There’s also a tantalizing, McCoy Tyner-ish crescendo where the band really make you wait for the expected drum solo; hints of salsa and Cuban son montuno; and a cuisinarted folk tune which turns from blithe to sinister when interrupted or syncopated, Mitchell’s eerie modal solo coming as a big surprise.