Ches Smith’s ECM Trio

Ches SmithThe Bell (ECM, 2016)

imageSo 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.


Is it just me, or has the viola suddenly become hot?

Between items in the news and items crossing the KZSU transom, viola seems to be popping up much more than usual.

* Violist Nadia Sirota got quite a few good reviews for her album First Things First, including one in the Mercury News (albeit as part of a classical-CD roundup.)  Kudossource: new amsterdam to the New Amsterdam label for getting her noticed in the first place, let alone reviewed.

* Jessica Pavone turns to the viola for her duo work with Mary Halvorson.

* Szilard Mezei. He’s only got a few albums out, but yeah, he’s a viola-slinging bandleader.

* Mat Maneri‘s viola seems to have become his lead instrument since the early 2000s, with his violin relegated to the bench.

… And then you’ve got viola as a front-line ensemble player in various jazz groups, like Carl Maguire’s Floriculture (Stephanie Griffin) or Sean Noonan’s Brewed By Noon (actually, that’s Maneri again so it might not count.)

What gives? Is it people like me who just like the freshness of a little-used instrument (and if so, is the oboe/bassoon revolution far behind)? Is it a case of musicians hearing, and then wanting to explore, the deeper sonorities and more breathy voice of the viola? Is it dumb plain coincidence?

All this matters to me because I played viola in elementary school. I couldn’t resist the appeal of playing an instrument nobody else did (and I sort of felt sorry for the viola).  As a result, I’ve developed an attachment to the viola in my music listening; it’s been my gateway to a lot of classical music, for instance, as I’ve been introduced to composers by their viola sonatas and concertos.  It’s nice to see the viola getting this kind of attention. But that openes up a bigger question: If the viola becomes cool, does that mean I have to dump it because it’s too trendy? (Kidding.)

Joe Maneri

I was sorry to hear Joe Maneri died this week, and even sorrier to note that I don’t know his music well. His 72-tone scale was evident all over his recordings, with the soured, squashed, off-key sound characteristic of microtones. That he recorded so often with his son Mat (violin, 6-string electric violin, and/or viola) is especially heartwarming.

I devoted a big chunk of the show to Maneri’s music. (Full playlist here.) Like I said, I’d never studied his catalog deeply, but I was grateful for the lightning tour through his late-blossoming career. Through releases on Leo, Hat, and ECM, Maneri became a strong presence in the avant-jazz community.

Maneri’s own Web site provides a good overview of his releases through 2005. I’ll subjectively supplement that notes from my own lightning tour. (Most of the photos link into Maneri’s discography page; click the label names for more specific info.)


….. Paniots Nine (Avant, 1998; recorded 1963) is a free-jazz date with heavy Klezmer influence and some gutsy, joyous soloing from Maneri. He hadn’t gone the 72-tone route yet, but you can hear that he was willing to buck the status quo with his solos.

It was Maneri’s demo tape for Atlantic, which turned him down for a recording contract. He wouldn’t record again for something like 20 years, having both rejected the music business and embraced the academic life at the New England Conservatory.

Source: joe….. Kalavinka (Cochlea, 1989) is a trio set with Mat Maneri on electric violin (looking very ’80s glam in the sleeve photo) and Masashi Harada on percussion and voice. It’s a session that was recorded in one four-hour chunk and left on CD in the order of the performances. “Number One” shows off the squeaky, whining (in a good way) quality of the Maneris’ microtonal approach, in a calmly building improv. “Number Three” slowly builds in a reverent sort of peacefulness, a side of Maneri’s that I didn’t explore much during the show. To wit: I chickened out and played the active, radio-friendly “Number Four.”

….. Get Ready To Receive Yourself (Leo, 1995). This album was apparently KZSU DJ Klee’s first exposure to Maneri, and his review for the staff starts with, “Jeez! Where have they been hiding this guy?” The reaction wasn’t unique to Klee; because Maneri’s recording career began so late, he didn’t receive international attention until the mid-’90s and albums like this one.

Source: joe….. The title track of Let the Horse Go (Leo, 1996) is a sturdy, meaty, 13-minute improvisation (Mat on violin, Randy Peterson on drums, John Lockwood on bass) that I didn’t think I’d have time to include. But “Is It Naughty Enough?” at half the length, provided the same kind of atmosphere, maybe a tad less intense.

source: ECM….. Angles of Repose (ECM, 2004) puts Maneri into that echoey ECM sheen, and it works really well, especially with Mat’s viola putting up strong, resonating lines. The great European improviser Barre Phillips rounds out the trio, making for a strong set of improvisations (and standards, like “What’s New.”) I also played a track from Three Men Walking, the ECM album that teams the Maneris with Joe Morris playing delicate guitar.

Source: Jazz Times….. Because its songs all exceed 13 minutes, I saved The Trio Concerts (Leo, 2001) for later in the show, for a tour de force kind of moment. “Of Any Three” starts off haltingly, actually, but you later get to hear Joe Maneri bash away on the piano, which is something unique compared with the other CDs in our collection. The two discs represent separate sessions recorded a year apart, packaged together as a 2-CD set.

source: joe….. Tenderly (Hatology, 1999) closed out the Maneri segments. Maneri never turned his back on his jazz roots and often included standards on his albums, even if the rest of the material was improvised. It’s interesting to hear the microtonal playing applied to a jazz standard like this, bringing out new harmonies while still keeping the same velvety feel. Takes some getting used to, but it makes for some nice listening.

(I couldn’t link directly to this entry in the Hat catalog, but click here and search for “Tenderly” to find it.)

source: thirsty

As a bonus, I played a couple of Mat Maneri’s own tracks. He was practiced in his father’s 72-tone scale, but he’s also well known for some interesting projects of his own.

….. Sustain (Thirsty Ear, 2002) was a particularly impressive album, where Maneri and an all-star cast, led by Joe McPhee on sax, blaze through some dense, energetic psych-influenced pieces. Mat’s viola gets the electric-guitar distortion treatment for some rocking sounds, and Craig Taborn‘s electric keyboards infuse a modern-day sound. Every other track is an unaccompanied solo featuring one of the five band members.

….. Fever Bed (Leo, 1996) is a trio date with Randy Peterson (drums) and Ed Schuller (bass). Both those musicians are certainly capable of keeping up with the whole microtonal thing (Peterson is on the Trio Concerts date noted above), but their role here, particularly on Schuller’s side, is to provide a jazzy backing to Mat’s violin soloing. It’s an intriguing mix of harmonies, and a rich sound.