Album review: Ches Smith’s Cong For Brums – Psycho Predictions (88 Records)

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From Baby Dodds’ tumbling his way through “Spooky Drums” to Han Bennink getting giddy on Tempo Comodo, the choices a percussionist makes when he or she sets up shop alone is always intriguing – and this record is no different.

Over the course of three discs Ches Smith, has come up with some intriguing turns. Away from noted collaborators such as Marc Ribot and Tim Berne, and under the moniker Cong For Brums, he’s melded his skills at the trap set with a yen for electronics and assorted percussive instruments. The resultant array of soundscapes is as logical and gorgeous as they are abstract and hermetic.

The three on Smith’s latest outing are titled “Death Chart,” “Birth Chart,” and “Conclusion: That’s Life.” Drawing from mentors such as Pauline Oliveros and Alvin Currin, using lessons picked up during his studies at Mills College, the NYC drummer builds a narrative arc that includes moments of Morse Code mixed with doom-metal flourishes. He calls ‘em etudes, but you can call ‘em the most well-plotted cris de coeur ever—even the bleeps are nicked from Pac Man.

Smith, a lanky dude who plays a somewhat tiny drum set featuring a mile-high crash cymbal, recorded Psycho Predictions live, and its improvised design claims a deliberate feel. That’s a plus. It may seem like a parade of textured thwacks and buzzes, but each segue does a good job of leading the music away from randomness. “I’m trying to find a way to connect the three instruments compositionally,” he says when speaking about the drums, vibes, and electronics. “I had this whole thing mapped out harmonically, but it came together differently than what I had imagined when I set out.”

There are giddy passages with a Raymond Scott feel, luminous passages with a Cluster vibe, and a moment or two of good old Baby Dodds as well. Smith may do strong work with such associates as Mary Halvorson and Xiu Xiu, but he has no problem creating a load of eloquence on his own.

- Jim Macnie

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