Ches Smith drums, vibraphone, timpani
Craig Taborn piano
Mat Maneri viola
Recorded June 2015 at Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James A. Farber
Assistant: Akihiro Nishimura
Produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: January 15, 2016
After sideman appearances with Robin Williamson and Tim Berne’s Snakeoil, percussionist Ches Smith presents a bounty of original compositions on his first ECM album as leader. In the hands of his cosmically capable bandmates and label stalwarts—pianist Craig Taborn and violist Mat Maneri—Smith’s material behaves as exactly that: a substance to be formed and reformed with cymatic detail.
The title track opens the album, appropriately enough, with chimes. Microtonal harmonies from Taborn and barest caress of viola strings build anticipation over resonant vibraphone touches. From the piano arises a sweeping cinematic landscape as the mist resolves into clearer bow lines and forceful drumming. This piece shares breath with other such delicacies as “Isn’t It Over?” and “I Think.” In both, Smith treats grooves like rocks in his shoe—which is to say, as ephemeral yet memorable. And in these metallic core samples, striations of exactitude are unnecessary. As if in response to an underlying declaration of freedom, Maneri works his songcraft like a master boatman who has lost his oar but not his sense of propulsion, moving along the water with ease by power of thought instead. The effect is such that by the time Smith brings traction, the shoreline has already been confirmed as an illusion. Whether in the microscopy of “It’s Always Winter (Somewhere)” or the angular reverie of “For Days,” each member of this trio paints a halo of deference around the others’ heads, so that even the mischievous “Wacken Open Air” emits a near-palpable blast of respect.
(Photo credit: Caterina di Perri)
“Barely Intervallic” is the first of the album’s two deepest wells. This one is Maneri’s knot to unravel. The combinatory textures of Smith and Taborn allow every note from the violist a chance to speak. The monochromatic color scheme of “I’ll See You On The Dark Side Of The Earth,” on the other hand, is Taborn’s chamber of intimacy. Maneri and Smith are minimal here, the latter’s tracery is especially poignant as a lunatic origami ensues at the fringes of cohesion. In this medieval blues, distilled from the future to meet in the blessing of the here and now, Smith and his bandmates forge new understandings that suggest themselves by their very coexistence.
As in my review of Avishai Cohen’s Into The Silence, I feel compelled to note the beauty of seeing this trio at the 2016 New York City Winter Jazzfest, and how much more attuned I felt experiencing its wonders in a live setting. Perhaps it’s the blush of first exposure, but I would encourage anyone reading this to seek out the trio in person wherever and whenever possible. Not that the studio album is unworthy—just that, like a perfume, there’s only so much you can learn about its scent through the hearsay of this or any other review before getting a bottle of it to your nose.