Ches Smith Rings 'The Bell' for Debut Trio on ECM Records (REVIEW)

By Mike Greenblatt | Jan 24, 2016 05:22 PM EST
(l-r) Maneri, Taborn, Smith (Photo : Paolo Soriani)

Chamber music of the highest order, The Bell (ECM) starts out with exactly that. Recorded in New York, drummer Ches Smith performs on timpani and vibraphone before he ever hits the skins. The esoteric, atmospheric 9:29 title tune melts into "Barely Intervallic" where Craig Taborn on piano and Matt Maneri on viola(!) serve as the most laidback front line you're ever likely to hear.

But wait.

"Isn't It Over" (13:11), "I'll See You on the Dark Side of the Earth" (10:47) and "I Think" (9:31) start to build The Bell's intensity level up and up until it ratchets into a tribute of sorts to Europe's largest heavy metal festiva,l "Wacken Open Air" (5:16). Ches came to jazz from the worlds of grunge, punk and, yes, metal. He's worked with Mr. Bungle, Ceramic Dog and Wadada Leo Smith. He leads another group, These Arches, with Tim Berne, and plays in Berne's group Snakeoil.

The Bell isn't all improv. Ches writes minimally so Taborn and Maneri have large swatches of experimental adventurism in which to flesh out the leader's skeletal compositions. Therein lies the allure of this debut trio.

The last two tracks -- "It's Always Winter Somewhere" (5:32) and "For Days" (6:38) -- end things on a complex and circuitous route, a completely indescribable montage of jazz, prog-rock, classical and sweet folk strains. Repeated listens bring out the complexity even more and by the time the listener is completely comfortable, then and only then do certain runs and licks make themselves evident. That said, The Bell could be construed as a argument for multigenre cross-pollination. It's going to be fascinating to see what the creative Ches Smith comes up with next. We'll be watching him closely.

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