Despite appearing on at least fifty recordings since 2001, Ches Smith remains the more under-recognized, yet highly in-demand, member of this newly formed trio. The drummer/percussionist and vibraphonist for Tim Berne's Snakeoil, Smith has played with John Zorn on Voices in the Wilderness (Tzadik, 2003), as well as Wadada Leo Smith, and guitarists Fred Frith and Marc Ribot. The Bell is his fifth outing as a leader, three being solo efforts and one with his recent group, These Arches, which included Mary Halvorson, Tony Malaby and accordionist/organist Andrea Parkins. Here, Smith teams with pianist Craig Taborn and Mat Maneri on viola. Taborn and Maneri had previously worked together more than ten years ago on Taborn's Junk Magic (Thirsty Ear, 2004).
The title track is a meditative piece for eight of its nine and one-half minutes. At that point Smith introduces some tension as the drums begin to thunder against Maneri's haunting drone and repetitive phrasing from Taborn. "Barely Intervallic" and "Isn't It Over?" are more avant-garde and experimental in nature giving improvisational masters like Taborn and Maneri plenty of freedom to create innovations that sound both spare and lavish within Smith's minimal structures. It isn't until the second half of "I'll See You On The Dark Side Of The Earth" that Smith injects more heated intensity with a rock beat over a discordant swirl of sounds from Taborn and Maneri.
The second half of the program remains in the chamber music approach with Maneri adding flashes of his uniquely exotic playing especially evident on "I Think." Taborn's playing ranges from snippets of melodicism to rapid-fire cascades of notes and Smith's drumming sounds impressively musical. The leader uses the vibraphone sparingly but its presenceespecially in the midst of freer group improvisationsadds a delicate balance to the sometimes more hectic proceedings.
For Smith, The Bell was not meant to be the stepping off point for a new group but rather a one-time impromptu session. However, after he, Maneri and Taborn played live in New York, Smith realized he an opportunity to create something more lasting with this exceptional group. His written compositions are intentionally kept minimal so as to let the improvisations take center stage. The trio responds to this approach with an appealingly patient mix of empty spaces, complex phrasing and textures that play in the moment and with an organic feeling. Smith/Taborn/Maneri will perform on the opening night of the New York City ECM Jazzfest on January 15, 2016.
The Bell; Barely Intervallic; Isn't It Over?; I'll See You On The Dark Side Of The Earth; I Think; Wacken; Open Air; It's Always Winter Somewhere; For Days.