Percussionist Ches Smith’s early mentors included Pauline Oliveros and Alvin Curran, he’s recorded two albums of solo percussion music1, plays in numerous experimental rock groups2, and is equally prolific in cutting-edge jazz circles, notably as a member of Tim Berne’s Snakeoil and as leader of These Arches, a quintet boasting the crack lineup of Berne, Tony Malaby, Mary Halvorson, and Andrea Parkins.
But The Bell showcases a different aspect of Smith’s art, as a composer of brooding chamber jazz pieces, more in line with the music he helped Robin Williamson realise on the latter’s excellent Trusting in the Rising Light (ECM, 2014). On that album, Smith and violist Mat Maneri3 accompanied the avant-minstrelsy of the ex-Incredible String Band bard with real sensitivity. Here, Maneri resumes his relationship with Smith alongside pianist Craig Taborn, one of Smith’s colleagues in Snakeoil4. Smith and Taborn, both resident New Yorkers, play together on record for the first time, which seems surprising in light of how well matched they are.
The album begins with the title track and the sound of a small bell, building from there by natural accretions of energy and texture. While Taborn plays light, ringing notes Maneri’s viola is a slithery, sometimes etherial presence. Smith chimes in gently with bowed or rippled cymbals, but also adds subtle twists of dramatic tension with timpani irruptions that prompt his partners to draw taut.
“Barely Intervalic” has the edgy, fidgety vibe of minimal modernism, all three players ruminating on tight melodic motifs in slightly offset tempos, until Taborn and Smith, switching from kit percussion to vibes, initiate a second movement of hypnotic simplicity. “I’ll See You on the Dark Side of the Earth” is equally reflective and fitful at first, the trio concentrating short phrases and aphoristic gestures, but Taborn locates a chordal pulse and their momentum shifts gear into an almost funky strut, Maneri’s viola flitting tautly.
The longest track at 13 minutes, “Isn’t it Over?” begins as a pensive piano/viola duet, but brightens when Smith picks out a simple melodic fragment on luminous vibes that’s echoed on plucked strings by Maneri as Smith switches first to malleted toms, then restrained kit percussion. That fragment then becomes the ideational centre of a slowly up-swelling, centripetal momentum with compulsive effect.
The trio always locate enough melody to counterbalance more introspective moments: “It’s Always Winter Somewhere” exhibits all the quicksilver spontaneity and invention of a top-flight Keith Jarrett improvisation, with the expanded dynamics of three-way improvisation. They keep the lightest, catchiest hook for start of the final track, “For Days”, only then to upend expectation with a dissolve into airy speculation, Maneri’s bowed viola etched in rubato through vibed and key-damped gloaming.
This might be Smith’s date, but witness the democracy of expression on the well-titled “I Think”, where serial unhurried, solo musings are drawn together by a brisk, propulsive drive to resolution, a mood carried over into the brief, intense “Wacken Open Air”.
This is the sort of date that makes terms like ‘fusion’ or ‘third stream’ music seem so ridiculously fusty and outmoded. This is syncretism or next stage evolution – cutting edge music.
1 Congs for Brums (2006), Congs for Brums: Noise to Men (2010)
2 Jamie Stewart’s Xiu Xiu, Trey Spruance’s Secret Chiefs 3, Carla Bozulich’s Evangelista, Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog, …
3 Maneri has long-running associations with pianist Matthew Shipp and guitarist Joe Morris. Of a formative run of albums under the leadership of his father, microtonal sax innovator Joe Maneri, their Three Men Walking trio with Morrris (ECM, 1995) is highly recommended.
4 Taborn’s closest associations include those with James Carter, Maneri, Berne, in whose Hard Cell he mostly plays electronic keyboards, Roscoe Mitchell, Dave Holland, and Gerald Cleaver.
Ches Smith drums, vibraphone, timpani; Craig Taborn piano; Mat Maneri viola.
Buy The Bell direct from ECM.