A versatile "jazz" drummer proves well beyond category in this essential, gorgeous trio with viola and piano.
Ches Smith embodies as well as anyone the current mature generation of jazz musicians — first and foremost in that he is only a “jazz” musician because no other label is as utterly beyond category.
Listening to The Bell, his first prominent-label release (on the august ECM label), you are excused for initially hearing Smith as a member of New York’s classical chamber music cadre, perhaps part of an exceptionally lyrical wing of the Bang on a Can community. Craig Taborn plays pulsing chords and chiming bursts under Matt Maneri’s tender viola melody. Smith sounds not like a “drummer” in the jazz or rock sense but an atmospheric percussionist, manning vibes, chimes, and bells as “The Bell” moves through what appear to be through-composed canyons of beauty. Even in the last minute or so, as Smith moves to cymbals and timpani and Taborn repeats an off-kilter piano line voiced in octaves with greater volume, the atmosphere is effete rather than funky or swinging.
This is, however, only one side of the exceptionally versatile and wide-ranging Smith, who currently lives in Brooklyn, New York and plays there with, well, just about everyone. Smith studied at Mills College, with its top reputation in electronic composition, minimalism, and the creative avant-garde; he became a member of the avant-rock band Mr. Bungle; he has studied a variety of world musics; and as a “jazz” drummer he delivers a wide range of virtues — from popping swing to fiery free creativity to atmospheric conversation.
The Bell sneaks these other sides of Smith into a program that, on the surface and at first, reeks of the classic ECM virtues: atmosphere, lyricism, and freedom tempered by taste. But this album is programmed with exceptional care and pacing, unfolding from chamber delicacy to increasingly energy and momentum. It can bring to mind Ligeti one moment and the Chick Corea/Gary Burton duets the next, Herbie Hancock for a few bars with a dashing shift to Phiip Glass. These references, however, fall short because they suggest that Ches Smith is somehow stitching things together or making post-modern allusions. Rather, The Bell is an organic, original work that simply draws from a deep well. It carries you along with narrative care.
After the title track, “Barely Intervallic” begins lyrically again but benefits from a stunning climax as the trio improvises collectively with superb listening and interaction. Here and elsewhere, Smith moves from vibes to drums and back again with fluid transition and no overdubbing, playing melody and rhythm on both with near-equal balance. “Isn’t It Over” rounds out the open set of tunes, again beginning with lyrical beauty and textural delicacy. Taborn plays with pastel passion, and Maneri seems to control the song with his dynamic shifts, from throaty to bluesy to a pizzicato unison with the vibes that is perfect. A section in the middle that pits Maneri’s improvisation against a passionate toms-and-tympany pattern by Smith tell us that things will not stay ECM-lyrical forever.
Now, about a third of the way into The Bell, there is a shift. “I’ll See You on the Other Side of the Earth” begins like a stately rotating planet, for sure. Smith’s vibes and Taborn’s dark-hued piano voicings throb like footsteps as Maneri barely whispers a melody, alternating registers. Lull you it might, but then a change is afoot. The rhythmic landscape grows more uncertain, with the piano and Smith drum kit moving into polyrhythmic conversation, to which Maneri jumps in eagerly. Two-thirds of the way through, the song is a slow-rocking funk number with a jagged written melody and no shortage of guts. “I Think” uses a similar structure, featuring vibes and piano in a wide-open but highly lyrical opening duet that expands to include viola. At the three-minute mark, however, Taborn begins a repeated downward arpeggio that he punches in a jagged syncopation that eventually infects the whole tune with driving urgency.
“Wacken Open Air” gets to an place of rhythmic exploration even sooner, with Smith dropping into syncopated cracks and snare hits under a piano-viola line that is funky exactly as written. This song has a more tonal quality throughout and inspires the band to five minutes of real pleasure. Despite plenteous counterpoint, it always feels like jazz rather than classical music. Which is even more true with the follow-up, “It’s Always Winter Somewhere”. “Winter” begins with a funky left-hand piano line as its strutting melody, then shifts into a gorgeous collective improvisation for viola, piano, and drums — an extended workout that features the most thrilling lines and harmonic alleyways on the record. Tabor glistens with runs that are shot-through with light. It ends with a shift to a jagged but appealing viola melody, soon doubled by piano, that grooves like mad over the original bass line.
By its close with “For Days”, The Bell has almost completed reversing its prior strategy: like “Winter”, it starts funky and insistent and then grows introspective. Smith and his trio blend confidence and delicacy in this almost quiet improvised space, unafraid of silence, unafraid of lyricism, unafraid of dissonance. And that’s how the journey of The Bell ends — without the usual return to the theme, leaving you open-ended and waiting for the next note.