Despite appearing on more than 50 recordings since the beginning of the 21st century, drummer/percussionist Ches Smith has led only a handful of dates. His credits sprawl across the catalogs of indie rock acts such as Xiu Xiu, Mr. Bungle, and Carla Bozulich as well as modern jazz artists John Zorn, Marc Ribot, Wadada Leo Smith, and Mary Halvorson, and he's a member of Tim Berne's Snakeoil. (The saxophonist also plays in Smith's These Arches.) The Bell is his ECM debut as a leader. Smith chose pianist Craig Taborn and violist Mat Maneri as his companions into this foray of composition and improvisation. Taborn and Maneri have worked together before on the pianist's Junk Magic set for Thirsty Ear in 2004. Smith originally formed the group for a lone New York gig, but the collective language they discovered on-stage led him to write specifically for them in the studio. Produced by Manfred Eicher, The Bell is steeped in mystery but it is focused, cohesive, rife with risky maneuvers. Some pieces are more thoroughly composed than others, but it's difficult to know which. Smith, who plays timpani and vibraphone in addition to drums, is content as a member of the ensemble rather than its soloist/leader. The title track opener is, for most of its nine-and-a-half-minute length, nearly speculative. But Maneri's viola offers enough of a lyric frame for Taborn to build on with texturally engaging, pulsing chords. Smith's various instruments build a bridge inside this subtle, insistent tension-building force. The trio finally cuts loose in the final moments and delivers the full measure of surprise. "Isn't It Over?" offers the barest hint of a compositional guideline, revealing confidence in the group's intuition in a gradually ascendant trajectory along hairline harmonic lines. Their discourse blossoms in the final third amid dark, seductive rhythmic interplay. "I'll See You on the Dark Side of the Earth" is also initially deceptive. The first half is filled with angular questions posed by Maneri and Taborn before Smith, riding a striated rock beat, answers with declarative authority. The circular movement in "Wacken Open Air" offers a more poignant dialogue with fleet arpeggios from Taborn and cymbal dances from Smith. "It's Always Winter Somewhere" begins in ether yet quickly finds rotational movement via Taborn's left-hand bassline annotations and colorful upper-middle-register chord patterns. Smith's snare and hi-hat flourishes encourage and underscore Maneri's timbral staccato phrasing. The engagement with post-bop occurs between Taborn and Smith, but like everything else here, it's an elusive moment; it exists as simply another woven thread in The Bell's labyrinthine space. Though all three men are expansive improvisers, in this intimate environment they are masters at discovering and articulating melody no matter how marginal or tenuous the origins. The Bell is not only an auspicious beginning for Smith as a leader, but for the possibilities of this trio going forward.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek