Ches Smith ‘The Bell’ (ECM) 3/5

2474 XFor this, his 5th release as band leader, drummer, percussionist and vibraphonist Ches Smith is joined by Craig Taborn on piano and Matt Maneri on viola. Smith is much in demand, having performed over the last few years with artists that include Tim Berne, John Zorn, Fred Frith and Marc Ribot. It is however, this trio that sees the drummer focussing his time on of late, sharing a like-minded synergy with familiar performers Taborn and Maneri. The trio made their debut in New York in 2014. Since then, this has become a priority project for the three musicians which now sees them making their debut on ECM with “The Bell”.
The album as a whole takes a somewhat meditative approach, with the odd moments of fuel being added to the slow burning fire, giving a lift to the otherwise reflective nature of the music. The title track sets the tone, with some lovely interplay between the three musicians, especially noticeable for the creative sounds and textures from Maneri’s viola. The pieces throughout the album are all quite lengthy, giving time and space for each participant to sketch out their paintings, before bringing it together in a wash of colour and sensitivity. A more avant-garde feel ensues on “Intervallic” and “Isn’t It Over?”, with the trio charting an improvisational course that journeys beyond the minimal structures of the tunes. Although there are moments of beauty and eyebrow-raising creativity, for this listener they are too few and far between. It feels as though the whole thing lacks a little focus and whilst some of the music is engaging, I found my thoughts drifting elsewhere; rather due to the failure of some of the tunes to draw me in, rather than a natural engagement with the tunes that might have fuelled my imagination. The second half of the album does lift things up a tad, with a brighter intensity coursing through “I’ll see you on the dark side of the Earth”. A chamber music approach seems the order of the day, and on “I Think” we are treated to some particularly fine playing from Maneri in particular, with Taborn’s cascading piano and Smith’s musical drumming all adding up to a finely balanced and intuitive piece of music.

Having listened to “The Bell” several times over, there is plenty to enjoy, but for me it lacks that compelling pull that makes the listener feel involved, or even intrigued by what he is hearing. Fine musicianship yes, feel and wonderment no.

Mike Gates