Drummer Ches Smith is renowned in several music communities. He has drummed with
indie rock bands, most notably Xiu Xiu; he performs in Haitian percussion groups; he has played in heralded jazz ensembles led by guitarist Mary Halvorson and in the group Snakeoil led by saxophonist Tim Berne. His own projects include Congs for Brums, a solo percussion setting with electronic accompaniment, and These Arches, a quartet with Ms. Halvorson, multi-instrumentalist Andrea Parkins and saxophonist Tony Malaby. Yet none of those diverse activities effectively preview the subtlety, texture and elegance of his new group, a trio with keyboardist Craig Taborn and violist Mat Maneri. Mr. Smith’s new recording “The Bell” (ECM, out Friday) features this group in a program of eight stunning originals. The band will play the Winter Jazz Festival in New York at the New School Tishman Auditorium on Friday and tour nationally Feb. 14-28.
The title track, which leads off the recording, begins with a gentle rumble of Mr. Taborn’s piano clusters, plus long, pungent notes from Mr. Maneri and accents from Mr. Smith on vibraphone and timpani. There are long swaths of silence as the band languorously settles into a riff—but the silences are charged, as if they constitute a fourth member of the group. And the band settles into an understated groove by the end of the track, with Mr. Smith on drums. He is an avid fan of the music of Thelonious Monk, who used silences to similar effect.
As if to confirm Mr. Smith’s interest in space, the second composition is titled “Barely Intervallic,” and it features compelling group interplay highlighted by Mr. Smith’s drumming and Mr. Maneri’s gripping bow work. “Isn’t It Over?” features a tighter narrative and riveting group improvisations. “I’ll See You on the Dark Side of the Earth,” a sly reference by Mr. Smith to a classic Pink Floyd recording, features fascinating riffs driven by the leader and smartly accented by Messrs. Taborn and Maneri.
Mr. Smith, who is 42 years old, was born in San Diego and studied music at Mills College in California. His mentors there were the composers Alvin Curran, Pauline Oliveros and Fred Frith. If there’s a link on his résumé to the music on this recording, it could be in the music of those three. Ms. Oliveros’s work is often meditative; Mr. Curran is kinetic, but often in a subdued manner; and Mr. Frith is a master of working with unusual rhythms. Mr. Smith played in various settings on the West Coast before moving to New York in 2008 in search of more opportunities to play his music. He quickly became a first-call drummer in some precincts of the jazz community.
For decades, jazz recordings led by drummers featured thunderous roars of percussion, but in the past few years a different approach has emerged. Billy Hart leads conventional groups that feature a more conversational tone. Jeff Ballard has a trio that engages in subtle interplay. Tyshawn Sorey wowed critics with 2014’s “Alloy” (Pi), a disc that brought contemporary classical effects to the genre. Mr. Smith is following in those footsteps; “The Bell” is an impressive chamber work. When I first heard Mr. Smith several years ago in a band led by Ms. Halvorson, his drumming was assertive and cantankerous, as if he couldn’t wait for his sounds to reach the ears of the audience. His new music is so nuanced; he has mastered the fine art of drawing the listener to it.
Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.