From Baby Dodd’s tumbling his way through “Spooky Drums” to Han Bennink getting giddy on Tempo Comodo, I’ve long been intrigued by the choices a percussionist makes when he or she sets up shop alone. 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 his yen for electronics and other percussion instruments. The resultant array of soundscapes are as logical and gorgeous as they are abstract and hermetic. The three on this latest outing are titled “Death Chart,” “Birth Chart,” and “Conclusion: That’s Life.” Using lessons from such mentors as Pauline Oliveros and Alvin Currin picked up during his studies at Mills College, the NYC drummer builds a narrative arc that includes moments of Morse Code mixed with flourishes of doom metal. He calls ‘em etudes, but you can call ‘em the most well-plotted cris de coeur ever – even the bleeps 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 has 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 of 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 an Cluster feel, and there’s 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.