PostGenre’s Best of 2021

7 (tie). Ches Smith and We All Break – Path of Seven Colors (Pyroclastic)

Everybody knows the influence on creative improvised music exerted by styles and musicians from Cuba, Puerto Rico, Jamaica and Trinidad. Haiti is the most populous nation in the Caribbean and the second-oldest republic in the hemisphere, yet the music of the island nation is all but unknown in the United States.

Into this mystery steps drummer and vibraphonist Ches Smith who encountered it almost by accident when he was invited to accompany a Haitian dance class two decades ago. Smith quickly immersed himself in the rhythmic language of Haitian Vodou drumming, which shares a common African root with Afro-Cuban music but developed on a separate track.

Smith formed a band, We All Break, as a way to work with this rich language and Path Of Seven Colors is the fruit of his immersion. It is at once an act of evangelism and an homage. The double-album is also a chronicle of the role that Vodou music has played in the evolution of Smith’s music. Seven of the 15 songs here were recorded in 2015 and issued as We All Break. With only Smith on drums, Daniel Brevil and Markus Schwartz on vocals and tanbou (hand drums), and pianist Matt Mitchell, who functioned essentially as a fourth drummer, textures on this session were lean and the connection with Haitian ceremonial music strong.

For the 2020 session, Smith doubled the size of the ensemble with the addition of Fanfan Jean-Guy Rene’s tanbou and vocals bringing a fourth drum voice to the percussive conversation that is at the heart of Vodou music. Sirene Dantor Rene’s vocals add a joyous top line to the melodies, both traditional and composed by Brevil, while bassist Nick Dunston and alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón form a connection with creative improvised music traditions from Puerto Rico and North America.

The newer session, presented first, becomes a point of reference for the development of Smith’s concept since the more austere 2015 recording. Over a bed of traditional Haitian Vodou polyrhythms, Smith adds dark, polytonal harmonies that clarify and intensify the mystery and power of the ritual music on which they are built. Zenón, immediately recognizable, has explored similar territory with the music of his home island of Puerto Rico, but he sounds especially energized and engaged with this new challenge. His fiery, harmonically daring solos are highlights. Mitchell is essentially a rhythm section player. Yet his ability to split his brain turns his piano into another drum choir on the montuno-like figures he often plays. Given solo space, he leaps into dazzlingly complex action.

With Path Of Seven Colors, Ches Smith makes a strong case for the centrality of Haitian music and once again proves that there is no contradiction between tradition and innovation.— John Chacona


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