May 19, 2024

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Interview with Ches Smith: I’m trying to become a more direct and present person: Video

Jazz interview with jazz drummer Ches Smith. An interview by email in writing. – First, let’s start out with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music. How exactly did your adventure take off? When did you realize that this was a passion you could make a living out of?

Ches Smith: – I grew up in Sacramento, California, and had an older brother who played drums. I used to be fascinated with Beatles and Rolling Stones records, and a lot of what was on the radio. I played along with records till I was 14 or 15 and started jamming and writing songs with friends. Around this time I started taking lessons, and playing my first shows as well. It was a big deal when we used to get paid to play shows way back then; we pooled the money to pay our practice space each month. It wasn’t till I started playing jazz gigs in my early 20s that I got an inkling I could support myself. It kind of had to do with watching my peers make a living at it first—most notably my bass player friends.

JBN: – How has your sound evolved over time? What have you been doing to find and develop your own sound?

CHS: – I’ve been concerned with finding a sound since the beginning I guess. I remember when I first wanted to change my brother’s dampened-down drums to a more ringy, open sound—something bigger. I’ve sort of kept that I suppose and searched for a sound on smaller “jazz” drums as well, then did the same with percussion and electronics, too. It has so much to do with how you hear, so I try to listen to music, people, my environment; I also look at art, read, talk to people and all the normal things to keep inspiration coming in.

JBN: – What routine practices or exercises have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical proficiency, in terms of both rhythm and harmony?

CHS: – Studying clave-based musical systems, in my case, Haitian Vodou music. Learning the songs while playing the drum parts. It’s still really challenging for me. Simple exercises working on many different subdivisions of beats. Practicing precise dynamics. I play vibraphone and some basic piano too, so working on playing through chord changes and some Bach things. I also still transcribe. And composing always teaches me a lot.

JBN: – Have you changed through the years? Any charges or overall evolution? And if so why?

CHS: – Yes and no. I think I’m still just honing things from 20-30 years ago. I’m trying to become a more direct and present person. I started trying to learn another language 10 years ago; that was a big change.

JBN: – How do you prepare for your recordings and performances to help you maintain both spiritual and musical stamina?

CHS: – I try to get enough sleep, I exercise regularly, and my diet isn’t too terrible. I drink coffee. I try to stay focused on every word and idea when someone is speaking to me. I try to pick my spots to allow my mind wander off.

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JBN: – In your opinion, what’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?

CHS: – I think you can try to change yourself by your mind as much as you want, and when you play whatever is in you is going to come out. The body has a lot to do with it.

JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; are you okay with delivering people the emotion they long for?

CHS: – Sure, although I don’t do this consciously. I usually play on an instinctual level, and if people get emotion out of it I think that’s great.

JBN: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of standard tunes are half a century old?

CHS: – I don’t know. I have difficulty getting anyone interested in anything. I guess by example. If you are stoked on something, someone will probably want to check it out. That’s how it worked with me.

JBN: – John Coltrane once said that music was his spirit. How do you perceive the spirit and the meaning of life?

CHS: – Do you think he meant his spirit took the form of music?

JBN: – If you could change one single thing in the musical world and that would become reality, what would that be?

CHS: – That everyone would dig in and write and play what they are really compelled to, independent of trying to get over.

JBN: – Whom do you find yourself listening to these days?

CHS: – Countless Haitian Vodou records, and videos of ceremonies. Xenakis, Bach, Hank Jones, Archie Shepp.

JBN: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?

CHS: – Things seem to work out if you are open with how musicians and people approach a situation; you often needn’t tell them what to do. I guess you can ask them to learn the notes you wrote.

JBN: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine: where and why would you really want to go?

CHS: – 50 years into the future, I’d go to Disneyland and trip out on the whole place being empty and run down. Like a huge Asbury Park. It wouldn’t last long because I wouldn’t be able to breathe, and it’d be 150 degrees Fahrenheit.

JBN: – So far, it’s been me asking you questions, now may I have a question from yourself…

CHS: – Do you have a background in philosophy? Do you consider yourself religious?

JBN: – No, I am not a philosopher and I have not studied philosophy. If you draw such a conclusion from the questionnaire, then they were developed with jazz legends. You may not understand, if you did, our relationship would be different. And as for faith, yes, I believe in God, don’t you?

JBN: – At the bottom line, what are your expectations from our interview?

CHS: – Not too much. I’m open. As it is via email, I’m wondering if some of my answers will be somewhat unsatisfying. It’s like: you say something, then I say something which may or may not respond directly to what you said. We’re not really adding on to each other. In any event, thanks for this.

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

Ches Smith's Interpret It Well marries vibrant tones with a vibraphone | Financial Times

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