In January 2014, Ches Smith was booked to play at the prestigious New York Winter Jazzfest. This was a huge honour for him. The great and good of jazz descended on New York for Winter Jazzfest. Over these three days, jazz musicians from all over the world would be creating groundbreaking music. Old faces would make a return, and new stars would be born. For Ches Smith these were exciting time.

Given Winter Jazzfest was such a prestigious event, Ches Smith was determined to do something different. So the American drummer and percussionist invited pianist Craig Taborn to join him at Winter Jazzfest. However, Ches Smith realised there was still a piece of the musical jigsaw mussing.

Ches Smith needed someone to join his nascent trio. Eventually, Ches Smith decided that Brooklyn born violist and violinist Mat Maneri, was the perfect addition. He would compliment and augment Ches Smith and Craig Taborn at Winter Jazzfest.

As the trio took to the stage at Winter Jazzfest, none of the three musicians thought that this was the start of a long-term project. For all they knew, they may only play together once. That wasn’t the case.

When Ches Smith, Craig Taborn and Mat Maneri took to the stage at Winter Jazzfest, they began to improvise. Suddenly, everything just clicked. The three musicians complimented and augmented each other perfectly. Onlookers watched as the nascent trio stole not just the show, but Winter Jazzfest.

By the time the trio had finished their set, a star had been born. Some of the most important jazz critics praised Ches Smith’s trio. Peter Margasak of the Chicago Reader hailed the trio as: “the best thing I caught all weekend.” That was high praise indeed. However, he was far from a lone voice in the wilderness. Critics and cultural commentators were in all agreement, that the new trio were one of the highlights of the weekend. Surely, this performance had to be the start of something?

Ches Smith however, wasn’t looking to form another band. However, deep down, he knew that here was a trio that just worked. Their debut performance had received widespread critical acclaim. Amazingly, everything was improvised. The three musicians had played off-the-cuff, seeing where the mood took them. It was then that Ches Smith began to wonder what the trio would be capable of, if he wrote some pieces? 

Soon, Ches Smith was warming to the idea of taking the trio further. He decided to speak to Craig Taborn  and Mat Maner, and see what they thought. They were a similar mind, and saw a future in the trio. However, the only problem was that the three musicians all had busy schedules. 

The more they thought about the project, the more it made sense to take it further. So they decided to prioritise the trio. 

Despite doing so, it wasn’t until June 2015 that Ches Smith, Craig Taborn and Mat Maner got round to recording their debut album The Bell at Avatar Studios, in New York. The trio were due to record eight chamber music tracks penned by Ches Smith. These tracks would be produced by multi award-winning producer Manfred Eicher. He founded the ECM label, which recently released The Bell. Having such an experienced producer was an advantage, as The Bell was Ches Smith’s first album as bandleader.

It must have been with a degree of trepidation that Ches Smith entered the Avatar Studios. He had played on countless albums previously. However, that was as a member of a band or as a sideman. This time, he was running the show.

Ches Smith began setting up his drums, timpani and vibes. Craig Taborn took his seat at the piano; and Mat Maneri tuned his viola. Eventually, everyone was ready to record what became The Bell. All that was left was for producer Manfred Eicher to set the tapes running. When he did, Ches Smith, Craig Taborn and Mat Maneri played. Eventually, the eight tracks were recorded, and Ches Smith had seamlessly made the transition from sideman to bandleader on The Bell. All that was left, was for The Bell to be released.

Before that, critics had their say on The Bell. Ches Smith’s debut album as bandleader received the same critical acclaim as their debut that night at Winter Jazzfest, in January 2014. It was exciting times for Ches Smith and the rest of the trio.

They were about to embark on a worldwide tour, promoting The Bell. The tour takes in America, Canada, Portugal, Austria, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway during January and February 2016. Then in March, the trio jet out to South America, where Ches Smith will showcase their eagerly-awaited debut album, The Bell. 

Opening The Bell, is the title-track. A bell rings slowly and hesitantly, before strains of viola are joined by a piano. It’s played, tenderly and softly. Literally  the keys of the piano are caressed, before vibes make the briefest of appearances. Soon,the piano becomes insistent. Gradually, the arrangement seems to be stirring from its slumbers. Still space is at a premium. Just a scratchy viola and vibes play as bells chime. When they dissipate, the viola drones and the piano continues to play pianissimo. Understated and spacious describes the arrangement. However, it grows in power and drama, before returning to its understated  state. From there, the droning viola and piano combine. Later, rumbles of timpani are joined by crashing cymbals, a hypnotic piano and the viola as this first piece of chamber music from the master improvisers reaches a crescendo. As it does, bells ring out, as if to celebrate this triumphant start to The Bell.

The viola sweeps almost dramatically, but leaving space for the rumble of timpani as Barely Intervallic unfolds. When it drops out, the piano picks up the baton. Notes are picked out deliberately. Then the viola and timpani reappear. In the case of the timpani, it merely has a walk-on part. Less is more. With the viola, it combines with, and compliments the piano. Brief bursts of drums add an element of drama, as the arrangement veers between dreamy and melancholy to a cathartic outpouring of frustration. Ches Smith seems to unleash his inner demons, as avant-garde meets free jazz and chamber music. As if spent, the drums disappear, as the vibes and piano create a hypnotic but elegiac backdrop. However, as the piano joins it seems darkness is about to descend. It never does, but there’s a sense of sadness and melancholia in the music.

This continues on Isn’t It Over? Just the piano plays before cymbals are played softly while the viola is caressed. The result is a quite beautiful sound. Complimenting it, is the piano. Each note is picked with care, as if realising that something special is unfolding. Soon, cymbals shimmer and vibes make an appearance. They’re playing supporting roles, as the piano and viola prove to be stars of the show. A pizzicato viola accompanies the piano, and its subtlety is the perfect accompaniment. Later, the vibes replace the viola and prove the perfect foil for the piano. Then when the arrangement stirs, the trio stretch their legs, using their inventiveness to create a dramatic backdrop. Stabs of piano join the wistful cries of the viola and rolls of drums. What follows is a masterful, stirring and dramatic performance that’s guaranteed to captivate. 

Just a dark, insistent, probing piano opens I’ll See You On The Dark Side Of The Earth. It’s joined by the plaintive cries of the viola and vibes that ring out. Despite that, the arrangement is wistful, ominous and has a sense of foreboding. Its roots seem to be in classical music, as the arrangement meanders moodily along. Later, the arrangement builds, with the viola and piano at the forefront. By then, there’s shrillness in the arrangement, as percussion and drums combine. Soon, dramatic and melodic describes the insistent, strident arrangement. It builds towards a crescendo as bandleader Ches Smith and Co. deliver a musical masterclass.

Vibes ring out, before almost dissipating on I Think. They reappear, only to disappear and usher in the piano. Just like the preceding track, the arrangement is understated, with a thoughtful, ruminative sound. Soon, the arrangement is washing over the listener. Occasional bursts of near drama ensure that the listener doesn’t become complacent. They don’t; as they’re aware that the trio will spring a surprise. Flourishes of piano and the cries of the viola could be the signal that a change is underway. That’s the case. The piano is played insistently and adds a hypnotic backdrop for the viola and drums. By now, everyone follows the lead of the piano, and creates another dramatic, rousing, cinematic backdrop. 

At just over five minutes, Wacken Open Air is one of the shortest tracks on The Bell. Straight away, a cinematic piano is joined by the viola and bursts of drums. Just like the previous track, this would be the perfect addition to a film. Another similarity to the preceding track is the rousing, stirring sound. Drums play an important part as piano is pounded and the viola sweeps the arrangement along. Later, the trio eschew power, but the sense of drama remains. Especially as the elegiac piano combines with the viola. Then the trio take a diversion, as they experiment and innovate before heading towards a dramatic crescendo.

A cymbal shimmers as the dark ominous sound of a piano opens It’s Always Winter Somewhere. It’s joined by an understated, thoughtful viola and Ches Smith’s drums. He plays within with care, ensuring he doesn’t overpower the arrangement. That would be a shame, given the potency of the combination of piano and viola. Craig Taborn’s fingers flit up and down the piano, caressing the keys. The result is ethereal and captivating. At one point, Craig Taborn plays a solo. It’s as if the rest of the trio are watching on in admiration. When they return, Ches Smith beats out a solo as Mat Maneri’s viola sweeps and shimmers. Both men seem to have been inspired by what has to be Craig Taborn’s finest moment on The Bell.

As the viola cascades, drums snap and the piano adds an element of drama to For Days, which closes The Bell. Soon, the tempo rises. So does the drama. At the forefront is the sweeping  viola and gentle, thoughtful bursts of piano. They contribute to another cinematic sounding track which meanders lazily along. It almost grinds to a halt. This is purely for dramatic effect; but works. By then the listener is spellbound, wondering what will happen next? Instruments are added, including vibes, the scratchy viola and insistent piano. Soon, though, everything is played with a tenderness, before the viola soars above the arrangement, providing a captivating end to not just For Days, but Ches Smith’s eagerly-awaited debut album, The Bell.

It’s no exaggeration to refer to The Bell as an eagerly awaited album. That’s definitely the case. Everyone who was fortunate enough to witness the trio’s debut at the New York Winter Jazzfest have awaited the release of The Bell. It marks Ches Smith’s move from band member and sideman to bandleader. 

He assumes the role and responsibility with aplomb. Everything he’s done so far in his career, seems to have been leading up to this. Ches Smith and his handpicked trio create what’s an ambitious, captivating and innovative album, where chamber music combines with avant garde, classical music and free jazz. This might seem like an unlikely combination, but it’s one that works. With the help of producer Manfred Eicher, seamlessly, Ches Smith, Craig Taborn and Mat Maneri combine musical genres on a captivating musical adventure.

It’s the result of three master musicians in perfect harmony. While Ches Smith is the bandleader, he’s not afraid to let Craig Taborn and Mat Maneri showcase their considerable skills. When this happens, Chess Smith is content to play a supporting role. He knows that they’re playing their part in a rich, multi-textured album, The Bell. It features music that’s variously cinematic, dramatic, elegiac, ethereal, rousing and stirring. Other times, it’s melancholy and wistful. Always, though, The Bell captivates. This makes the long wait for the release of Ches Smith’s debut album, The Bell well worthwhile. 




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