Ches Smith is best known to indie rock liner-note devotees as a percussionist who has appeared on over half a dozen Xiu Xiu releases (going all the way back to Knife Play). In recent years, he’s been consistently active on the contemporary jazz circuit—lending his talents to a series of celebrated albums by artists such as guitarist Mary Halvorson and saxophonist Tim Berne. The music of both those composers occasionally strays close to avant-rock, which helps explain Smith’s in-demand status around jazz’s cutting-edge galleries. But he also led those bands through quieter, softer passages, proving his depth and range.
For his first album as a composer and bandleader on Germany’s iconic ECM label, Smith has chosen a subtlety that seems influenced by his most recent bandmates and peers. It’s a stylistic course that will be broadly familiar to fans of Manfred Eicher’s jazz-and-classical imprint, and less so to fans of Women as Lovers. But The Bell isn't placid, either: In the company of pianist Craig Taborn and violist Mat Maneri—an experienced pair of collaborators—Smith forges a quiet intensity. There’s heat here, even if it takes some time to feel it.
Things begin calmly. The album’s title-track opener announces itself with a lone, delicate smack of pitched percussion, before the other players enter. Though the nine-minute piece never strays very far from a static and spacious feel, there’s often something new happening: Smith moves from the bell-like elements in his kit to some vibraphone shimmers, or thrumming timpani playing. Maneri moves from a low drone on his viola to high-pitch wisps of brief, almost-scratchy timbre. Collectively, the group’s sound is constantly tempting you into a false sense of ease that individual players delight in subverting with little tics—adding extra notes to minimalist phrases before they become too predictable.
While all The Bell’s tracks were composed by Smith, the group’s status as "an improvising trio" is clear during "Barely Intervallic," a cut where Smith indulges skittering, freer playing. "I’ll See You on the Dark Side of the Earth" and "I Think" follow the big-canvas, pensive-but-driven feeling of "Isn’t It Over?" In the album's final third, "Wacken Open Air" gives up its theme right away, the better to let us hear the group work the spare material into a potent acoustic riff. Maneri deals in some lyrical soloing toward the end of "It’s Always Winter Somewhere." And the finale, "For Days," re-establishes the set’s quiet equilibrium.
The largely hypnotic, not-quite-repetitive quality of the music will, for some listeners, call to mind Taborn’s own Junk Magic, an early-21st century triumph of electrified chamber jazz (and an album that also featured Maneri). But The Bell isn’t just some less kinetic, acoustic redo of that project, with Smith holding down the percussion chair. Despite the album’s restricted range, it suggests a malleable aesthetic, likely the result of the year and a half these improvisers put in together before recording their debut outing. You can imagine this band doing a wide variety of impressive work, in the very near future: perhaps adding in some electronics, or including compositions from all members. But for now, it’s persuasive enough as a demonstration of Smith’s continued career shift into contemporary jazz.
Isn't It Over?
I'll See You On The Dark Side Of The Earth
I Think; Wacken
It's Always Winter Somewhere
Ches Smith, drums, vibraphone, timpani
Craig Taborn, piano
Mat Maneri, viola
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