It begins with the sound of the bell that gives the album its title, and the music seems to flow outward from there. “The Bell” was one of the very first pieces Ches Smith wrote for his new trio with Craig Taborn and Mat Maneri and almost a blueprint for what follows, in this album of chamber music for master improvisers of wide experience.
Although the trio has become a priority project for its participants, the album launching with an extended burst of transatlantic tour activity, its beginnings were casual: “I had a gig in New York,” says Ches Smith, “an opportunity to do something different, so I invited first Craig and then thought about who else I might like to play with and that was Mat. That was the extent of the planning. It wasn’t supposed to be anything but a one-off gig. I definitely was not trying to form another band at that point, but the combination really clicked. It worked so well that it felt like I had to continue with it. The first gig was all-improvised and then I started writing for us. The idea was to keep the writing as minimal as possible. I definitely didn’t want to get in the way of the improvising – because the improvising was amazing.”
Early critical reactions to the music were very positive. Peter Margasak of the Chicago Reader reviewed a New York show at the 2014 Winter Jazzfest: “The best thing I caught all weekend was a superb trio led by drummer Ches Smith with pianist Craig Taborn and violist Mat Maneri, which expertly infused seductively draggy, narcotic writing with a mixture of brooding melody and rich texture. The band had sheet music, but it seemed to offer a loose road map rather than a strict score.”
The writing sets signposts and lays down paths for the players, guiding the progress but allowing leeway for creative collective detours, and individual approaches to the journey. On the title track, for instance, the players “basically move between three tonal areas. It’s as simple as I could make it. Mat and Craig are both so great at making transitions, sometimes those aspects can be left open.” Smith thinks of the trio concept as “‘big picture music’: music where our interpretation in the moment is key. The specific compositional approach might not work with other players but I’m happy that I’ve found a way to write for this ensemble.“
Some pieces are, in the composer’s description, “more evolved, more structured, than others”, and he reports chipping surplus material away from the piece called “Isn’t It Over?” just hours before the recording session was to begin at New York’s Avatar Studios: “That was a piece I had to really wrestle to the ground but, again, the simplest version turned out to be the best.”
Not “jazz drummer’s music” in any obvious sense – timpani and vibraphone are heard earlier in the album than the drum kit, and the leader is determined to be an ensemble player rather than featured soloist – the material gives primacy to melody. “Melody is usually the starting point of anything I do,” says Ches, who has worked in many very different contexts over the years. Midway through the programme, the piece called “I Think” puts a single melody through very different options. It begins spaciously with crystalline vibes, eventually evolving into music of thunderous monumental power. This acoustic trio can summon up a remarkable intensity, a fact Smith may have had in mind when naming the piece “Wacken Open Air” after the world’s biggest heavy metal festival. “I could imagine the basic musical material being adapted for a context like that,” he reasons.
Smith’s early development as a composer was influenced by studies at Oakland’s Mills College with Pauline Oliveros, Alvin Curran, Fred Frith and William Winant: “I got good ideas from all of them. I wasn’t there primarily to learn composition, percussion performance was officially my course, but I was continually encouraged and challenged to bring in material and work on it.” Ches Smith’s CV resembles that of few other musicians. He played in grunge, punk and metal bands before exploring jazz and free improvisation, although he counts Thelonious Monk amongst his earliest influences. He has worked with musicians from rock band Mr Bungle to composer Terry Riley, from Marc Ribot’s band Ceramic Dog to Wadada Leo Smith. He gives solo performances with his electronically-oriented project Congs For Brums (“micro and polytonal and on the harsh side”), leads his own group These Arches with Tim Berne, Mary Halvorson, Tony Malaby and Andrea Parkins, and plays in guitarist Halvorson’s diverse projects. He’s a member of Tim Berne’s Snakeoil with three albums so far on ECM, and also appears, alongside Mat Maneri, on singer-songwriter Robin Williamson’s album Trusting In The Rising Light. “I’ve always been attracted to the examples in each genre that defy it”, Smith told Jazz Times. “I just try to play what I hear.” The Bell is his first ECM leader disc. “It’s the most dramatic album I’ve ever made”, says Ches of the the way in which it builds in intensity. “[Producer] Manfred Eicher has a unique sense for sequencing. I think of the album also as a collaboration with him: this project wasn’t yet a band when I first proposed it to ECM, and his advice and decisiveness in the studio were very helpful.”
Violist Mat Maneri has been recording for ECM for 20 years, starting with Three Men Walking in 1995, with his father, the late saxophonist/clarinettist and microtonal music innovator Joe Maneri, and guitarist Joe Morris. Mat’s discography for the label includes a solo album, Trinity, and most recently Transylvanian Concert with pianist Lucian Ban. Latterly he has been playing viola duets with Tanya Kalmanovitch and working in the ensembles of pianist Kris Davis. Mat’s primary teacher was Juilliard String Quartet founder Robert Koff, and his improvisations are informed and grounded by his knowledge of contemporary and classical composition, as well as the jazz tradition.
Craig Taborn’s ECM recordings include a solo piano album, Avenging Angel, and a trio disc, Chants, with Thomas Morgan and Gerald Cleaver. He made his ECM debut as a member of Roscoe Mitchell’s Note Factory on Nine To Get Ready in 1997 appearing also on later discs with Mitchell including Composition/Improvisation 1, 2 & 3 and Far Side (further recordings with Roscoe are in preparation). He has also recorded for ECM with Evan Parker, Michael Formanek, Chris Potter and David Torn. Discs elsewhere include Junk Magic, a 2004 album with Mat Maneri’s participation. Outside of a few ad hoc gigs and a David Torn concert where Ches subbed for Tom Rainey, Taborn and Smith hadn’t played together much before the formation of the present trio, but the value of the collaboration is evident in every moment of The Bell, as Taborn works rigorously with the musical material and its implications.