Elements of Haitian Vodou and contemporary jazz on groundbreaking new PATH OF SEVEN COLORS
Ches Smith's We All Break
melds elements of Haitian Vodou and contemporary jazz on groundbreaking new Path of Seven Colors
The recording and accompanying film showcase the band's synergistic connection and exhilarating, alchemical mix of musical forms
"I've been on the scene, and know a lot of people, but projects like this are the kind of thing you live for." – saxophonist and MacArthur Fellow Miguel Zenón
Like most great art forms, jazz developed by combining previously distinct, disparate elements into something new. The musicians of We All Break follow in this tradition on their new release, Path of Seven Colors, available June 11, 2021 via Pyroclastic Records. The album, with its remarkable merging of traditional Haitian Vodou music and au courant composition and improvisation, offers eight evolutionary/revolutionary tracks performed by a collaborative octet of world-class musicians.
The brainchild of drummer/composer Ches Smith, We All Break features pianist Matt Mitchell, saxophonist Miguel Zenón, rising-star bassist Nick Dunston, vocalist Sirene Dantor Rene, and master drummers Daniel Brevil, Markus Schwartz, and Fanfan Jean-Guy Rene.
The release features deluxe packaging including two extensive booklets with photos, track-by-track narratives, and lyrics in Haitian Creole and English; it also includes a free bonus disc of the 2015 eponymous recording by the original quartet (Smith, Mitchell, Brevil, and Schwartz). In addition, the ensemble's music and collaborative process are highlighted by a 50-minute film "We All Break, " available on the release date via the websites of Pyroclastic, Smith, and award-winning filmmaker Mimi Chakarova
ph cr. Mimi Chakarova
While the band's first album featured a quartet of three drummers with piano (and occasional vocals), the new recording uses an octet to orchestrate the material and greatly expands the vocal dimension, pushing the band into new terrain. "There is no existing model marrying traditional Haitian songs with original instrumental compositions and contemporary improvisation in this way, " says Smith. "We just had to keep trying things, in the spirit of experimentation, until the balance was right and we'd created our own mold."
Smith's dedication to Haitian Vodou began more than twenty years ago. "My attraction was instant and strong, " he says. "In 2000 I got called to accompany a Haitian dance class. I was captivated, likely because things central in the various musics I play – polyrhythm, polytonality, improvisation, extended timbral awareness, tension and release, channeled aggression and power, and most vitally surprise – I found again, and anew, in this traditional form."
His compositional vision aimed to incorporate and transform elements of this tradition. "I wanted these elements – lead/chorus song structure, polytonal relations among singers and drums, conversations between the drums, and kase ('breaks') – at the center of each piece, " he says. "A traditional rhythm would be the foundation of each composition, while that rhythm's spiritual, political, and visual associations could function as deep wells of information and feeling, levering the work into a new dimension."
Pianist Mitchell's melodic and harmonic sense, improvisational talents, and keen sense of rhythm made him a natural for the band. Smith also enlisted his master-teachers, Brevil and Schwartz. "I knew they would tell me straight whether this project was flying or not, " says Smith. He also brought in Jean-Guy Fanfan Rene, co-leader with Sirene Dantor Rene of Vodou-activism group Fanmi Asòtò. Smith also had an idea to pile-drive the bottom end, bringing in Nick Dunston: "I pictured a broad, taut, multi-colored tapestry dense with rhythmic detail in the low range of the music. This sound would include the contrabass for its harmonic and time-keeping roles, but also to function, slyly, as a fifth drummer."
Serendipitously, Ches played a gig with alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón, who expressed an interest in Haitian drumming. Smith says, "His playing on his own records, and his stunning compositions, told me he would be another force to push the music forward." The final addition to the octet arose from Brevil's suggestion to add a female voice. Enter Sirene Dantor Rene. "She sings with supreme conviction, " says Smith, "using traditional inflections in a voice wholly hers."
Brevil began finding traditional Vodou songs, melodies and lyrics to nestle within Smith's instrumental compositions. "Daniel composed many of the songs himself, " says Smith, "and fervently searched for others in the tradition, coming back with a multi-authored body of work. His curation brought up questions about the distinction between 'traditional' and 'original.' I once read that new songs may be created in a particular Vodou house and enter the tradition in that fashion. Perhaps this was happening before my eyes with Daniel's original songs."
The result is a triumphant, pioneering ascent, tracked and mixed beautifully by the legendary Ron Saint Germain. The band rehearsed and recorded for a week in February 2020 amidst mutual respect, focus, excitement, and a commitment to going all in on their trailblazing collaboration. Says Smith, "An almost uncanny feeling accompanied us the whole time. If I may be allowed a bit of speculation: if in Vodou the invisible becomes visible, here, perhaps, the inaudible becomes audible."
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