Born in San Diego, Smith grew up in the Sacramento area, where he became interested in music in his teens, playing with a variety of punk, metal, and avant-garde jazz groups. After high school, he attended the University of Oregon, where he studied philosophy before relocating to San Francisco in the mid-'90s. Once in the Bay Area, Smith spent several years playing in bands and studying privately with percussionist Peter Magadini before enrolling in the graduate program at Mills College in Oakland. While at Mills, he studied percussion, improvisation, and composition under the tutelage of such luminaries as William Winant, Fred Frith, Pauline Oliveros, and Alvin Curran. It was during this period that Smith got his first big break, subbing for Winant as the touring drummer for Mr. Bungle, an association that also led to his joining Mr. Bungle bassist Trevor Dunn's Trio-Convulsant. After leaving Mills, Smith developed into an in-demand collaborator and sideman, splitting his time between performances with noise rock acts like Xiu Xiu and Secret Chiefs 3 as well as playing with cutting-edge musicians including Tim Berne, John Zorn, Wadada Leo Smith, and many others.
As a solo artist, Smith made his debut with Congs for Brums in 2006, followed by Finally Out of My Hands with his group These Arches in 2010. Two years later, he delivered the solo percussion and electronics album Psycho Predictions, played on Berne's Snakeoil for ECM (his third date with this band) and Darius Jones' Book of Mae'Bul: Another Kind of Sunrise from AUM Fidelity.
2013 proved a prolific year for Smith as a sideman. He played on recordings by Marc Ribot, Mary Halvorson, Matt Mitchell, and Berne, as well as Secret Chiefs 3's Book of Souls: Folio A. This band issued Ishraqiyun the following year, as well as Ches Smith's These Arches' release, International Hookah.
Smith made his label debut as a leader on ECM with the trio date The Bell in January of 2016. His sidemen were pianist Craig Taborn and violist Mat Maneri. He then paired with bassist Dave Holland, saxophonist Evan Parker, and Taborn for 2018's Uncharted Territories. The following year, he was back on ECM for Sun of Goldfinger with David Torn and Tim Berne.
For many years Smith has a held a deep, abiding, studious interest in Haitian music, and vodou ceremonial music. He studied and played with Haitian master drummers in New York, and visited Haiti for further study and playing. In 2015 he formed We All Break, a quartet with pianist Matt Mitchell, and hand drummers / vocalists Daniel Brevil (one of his teachers) and Markus Schwartz. They digitally issued their self-titled debut two years later.
Even as he pursued other projects, Smith was deeply invested in the music he made with We All Break, and they continued to play together whenever schedules would allow. In 2020, he signed the band to pianist Kris Davis's Pyroclastic Records, and entered the recording studio. Smith had expanded the band into an octet with the addition of saxophonist Miguel Zenon, bassist Nick Dunston, vocalist Sirene Dantor Rene, and third percussionist Fanfan Jean-Guy Rene. Path of Seven Colors appeared in June 2021. The deluxe boxed package included a physical pressing of the original album--titled 2015 for the year the band formed--alongside the statement from the newly epxanded group, titled 2020. ~ Matt Collar & Thom Jurek, Rovi
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