Back in 2014, when reporting on the Winter Jazzfest in New York City for City Paper, I pondered whether our town would give a warm reception to percussionist Ches Smith’s trio with pianist Craig Taborn and violist Mat Maneri. Smith is no stranger to Pittsburgh, having visited with intense pop outfit Xiu Xiu, as well as Good for Cows, a duo with bassist Devin Hoff that comes closer to metal. But neither of those groups touches on the other side of Smith’s career: He’s also one of the busiest drummers in modern jazz.
Among his more high-profile gigs in the latter category is a spot in saxophonist Tim Berne’s quartet Snake Oil, which has released three albums on the prestigious ECM label. Now Pittsburgh has a chance to witness a blend of abstract composition and group improvisation when the trio, who just released The Bell on ECM, comes to town for an intimate performance.
The group’s instrumentation promises something of a stark soundscape. Taborn’s piano (or, in the case of the trio’s Pittsburgh show, electric piano) sometimes acts as the bonding element, playing ostinatos while his mates roam freely. Maneri is just as likely to run his instrument through a series of effects pedals — including one that drops the pitch to bass level — as to pluck and bow cleanly. Smith straddles melody and percussives by playing vibraphone, trap kit and tympani, sometimes all within the same piece.
When the trio came together three years ago, its debut performance was created spontaneously. Since each member has a number of different projects occurring simultaneously, no long-term plans were set. “The group had a really strong improvising chemistry. It was super fun, right off the bat,” Smith said, following a performance at the 2016 Winter Jazzfest, in January. “They’re so busy, especially Craig. I just [thought], ‘I’m not going to start a band with them. OK, let’s never do that again.’” That changed when he mentioned the group to Manfred Eicher, the head of ECM, who was interested making an album.
At Winter Jazzfest, the group’s interaction still seemed predicated on free improvisation. After tolling a bell fastened to one of his cymbals, Smith began playing the vibes with mallets. But he quickly brandished a bow, and conjured a rich drone out of the vibes. After a few minutes, he and Maneri created such a loud wave of sound, they nearly drowned out Taborn, who literally leapt off his bench at one point as he flew across the keys. But when the dynamics shifted, the three-way conversation came together for a composed section, smoothing the lines between written and spontaneous interplay.
Smith says many of the pieces on The Bell give the trio room to stretch out before they focus on the composition. “I’m encouraging us to approach even the written stuff as an improvisation,” he says. This is noticeable in the title track, where open space is granted as much room as filled space, and things take shape when Taborn locks into a loopy piano line in the final minutes. The title, “Isn’t It Over?” seems to refer to the way the 13-minute track changes shape three times before ending.
In preparation for a performance, the group doesn’t discuss anything before hitting the stage. “In this band, it’s only a trio. Everyone’s aware of all the possible parameters, so I’d much rather leave it completely open,” Smith says. “[The implication] might be something like, ‘Oh, we will get through [the] letter of this tune, at some point.’ And then we just kind of listen. I really try not to have an agenda or even a preference as to when it comes because some great stuff can happen. I definitely don’t have to approve everything that’s going on. They have more experience than I do.”
Growing up in Sacramento, Calif., Smith started off listening to classic rock and punk rock. “I didn’t understand what jazz was at all, so I was turned off by it,” he says. “It was based on a peer-group thing. I hung out with the metalheads and the stoners, even though I wasn’t a metalhead or a stoner. And then there were the [school] band guys. I had too bad of an attitude.”
That changed when a drum teacher, who also had an appreciation for punk, turned him onto Tony Williams, who drummed with Miles Davis and later started Lifetime, one of the first bands to successfully blend hard rock and jazz. Smith also discovered John Coltrane’s late-period recordings, which invited a more multi-directional approach to drumming. “I listened to it and I had no idea what was going on. But I was kind of attracted to the sound,” he says. “I found out, oh, jazz is really subversive music, actually. Also, it’s just amazing music.”