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Ches Smith: The Bell

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Perhaps the principal difference between the jazz audience and followers of popular music is that the latter crave the reassurance of the familiar and the former are junkies for the new. Even for the most esoteric jazz listeners, The Bell will meet the need for fresh stimuli.

For starters, there are not many drummer-led trios with piano and viola. More to the point, Ches Smith, Craig Taborn and Mat Maneri are all hardcore free-thinkers. Smith, in his ECM debut as a leader, presents eight compositional frames like stark grids, then sends three creative eccentrics out to wander around in them. Relationships between notation and improvisation are complex and provisional. Some roles appear to be assigned, like Taborn’s endless drone on the title track. Any role might evaporate in an instant.

This is music that must be approached on its own terms. You don’t sit back passively and let it happen. You must get out in the middle of it and follow each player around, seeking to understand how three independent lines of movement (or stasis) cohere into a whole. Sometimes there are sudden revelations of melody, in quick keening viola passes, or drum songs, or spilling piano. It is notable how many different sonorities this acoustic trio can produce (Smith also plays vibraphone and timpani), and also notable how loud they can go.

But the listening experience is mostly frustrating. This episodic music feels random and capricious as it flits from node to enigmatic node. Often (like on “For Days”), you have to wait too long between episodes. The silences become boring rather than suspenseful. Worse, not enough of what these players come upon is fundamentally attractive. It is intellectually curious but not aesthetically fulfilling. Albums that make you work this hard should reward you with more fun.

Originally Published