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Ches Smith, Craig Taborn & Mat Maneri, Vortex Jazz Club, London — review

The jazz trio delivered vivid, varied and sharply-drawn soundscapes

Financial times Review 13/7/2016

The central theme of this intensely focused gig was established from the outset. Drummer/vibraphonist Ches Smith smashed a small crash cymbal to sound like a bell; there was a scratch from Mat Maneri’s violin; and, after due pause, the cymbal’s bell-like sonorities were exactly replicated by Craig Taborn on acoustic grand. As the gig evolved, brief bell-like themes established mood, ghosted into high-energy improv and acted as an organising force. The trio’s dramatic minimalism was first captured on the 2015 album The Bell, its mood of left-field pessimism captured by titles such as “I’ll See You on the Dark Side of the Earth” and “It’s Always Winter Somewhere”. Now the trio is being road tested — the current European tour has taken in the North Sea Jazz Festival — and the contrasts between impending apocalypse and triumph-in-survival are more extreme. In both sets, melancholic motifs tolled briefly and fractured into improv, only to reappear as a pounding off-kilter riff supporting a wall of sound.

Smith’s drumming reflects his sideman credits ranging from indie rock and modern jazz to John Zorn. At this performance, he interspersed the fractured splatters of free jazz with ear-splitting 1960s rock, the hushed patter of fast, brush-driven swing and more besides. And it was his precise, deep-toned and dramatic drumming that gave the performance its overall shape.

The detail, though, was collaborative. Smith was equally astute when he switched from drums to vibraphone, and the percussive Taborn and amplified Maneri have a similarly fine-tuned sense of sound. For two sets, the trio delivered vivid sharply-drawn soundscapes that varied greatly in texture and tone.

At one point scurries of free jazz morphed into a violin melody so plangent that it conjured the desolation of a recently abandoned village; later, Maneri delivered a capricious impish dance. At another, Taborn sustained a pulsating single-note jangle, his left hand striding into the bass supported by a slash of amplified violin and pounding mallets. At times the music was abstract and dissonant, at others tuneful and rhythmic.

Both sets finished on a high — the first with solitary “Funky Drummer” drums and bell-like bash; the second with violin soaring over a thumping backbeat and piano mimicking a bell-ringer’s peal.

Mike Hobart

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