Ches Smith — The Bell (ECM, 2016)
So many of the musicians I came to know during the early 2000s have fled to New York. Among them is drummer Ches Smith, who’s come to the spotlight as a part of Tim Berne’s Snakeoil and a leader of his own avant-jazz band, These Arches.
Those two bands fit in the same subgenre in my head. But I’ll always remember Smith for a band that was closer to instrumental pop: Good for Cows, his duo with bassist Devin Hoff (who is still out there, and whose one-off, strings-based project Redresseres, is going to be the subject of a writeup here someday.)
Now Smith has joined the company of ECM bandleaders with The Bell, a trio album where the band sketches wispy outlines that lead to frenzied excursions.
The title track, opening the album, is an exception. It’s all about the long game, developing gradually over a monotonic pulse and Mat Maneri’s slowly repeated viola line. Smith himself contributes small accents — a cymbal tap or dramatic, short swells of timpani. The deep atmosphere is very “ECM.”
Most of The Bell is far from ambient, however. There’s the tense drama of “Isn’t It Over,” which builds into a cross-current of polyrhythms: a piano pulse from Craig Taborn, a subtle free groove on drums, and a soloing viola, each flowing on a different timestream. It’s relaxing, but also dark.
The 11-minute “I’ll See You on the Dark Side of the Earth” culminates in almost a heavy rock theme played in Maneri’s richly sour microtonal style, and he and Smith essentially rock out over Taborn’s somber piano chording.
The Bell‘s gorgeous, cerebral title track turns out to be just the surface. You’ll find plenty of passages of crystalline delicacy, but the overall album covers a gamut of moods.