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Percussionist/composer Ches Smith is one of the more forward-thinking musicians in the contemporary jazz scene – so much so that calling his music “jazz” feels unnecessarily reductive. His latest album Laugh Ash pulls from many sources – free jazz, hip hop, electronica, chamber music, funk – and weaves its seemingly disparate elements into a whole so cohesive it sounds less like a melange than a singular object.
Surrounding himself with horns, strings, bass, electronics, and vocals, Smith conjures a strange and seductive spell. On “Shaken, Stirred Silence,” synthetic throbs and noises interrupt the duet between Smith’s drum machine and Shahzad Ismaily’s bass, as Shara Lunon croons beguilingly over the top. A four horn frontline (saxophonist James Brandon Lewis, trumpeter Nate Wooley, flautist Anna Webber, clarinetist Oscar Noreiga) duels with the three-piece string section (violinist Jennifer Choi, cellist Michael Nicholas, violist Kyle Armbrust) on opener “Minimalism” as Lunon mutters and trills her own lyrics – oddly, this is one of the most accessible and weirdest pieces on the record. On the groovy (and perfectly titled) “Disco Inferred,” the horns take point while the electronics dive into the gutter, the cello punctuating the arrangement with ugly scrapes and aggressive thrums. The lively “Remote Convivial” sets up a roiling rhythm section supported by scratching strings, then turns Lewis loose atop it with a hipshot solo. The unsettling “Most Fucked” holds the heads of the acoustic instruments under electronic water, more of a baptism than a drowning, while the melodic “Unyielding Daydream Waiting” almost finds its way into being an atmospheric pop song. Nothing is off limits, as long as it can be translated to fit the leader’s vision, as opposed to being a callback to a key influence.
Laugh Ash is easily one of the most ambitious, eclectic, and discombobulating albums to come out under the jazz banner in some time. Is Smith a genius or a mad person? Why choose only one?
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