THE BAD PLUS
The Linda - WAMCs
Performing Arts Studio
May 13, 2008
by Randy Treece
It has been a couple of months since their maiden voyage appearance in the Capital District area, but a surprisingly sizeable crowd came to the Linda to see the purveyors of the nouveau jazz, Ethan Iverson on piano, Reid Anderson on bass, and David King on drums, best known as The Bad Plus. Ostensibly this is a testament to their draw and rare distinction in the jazz world and may be an indication of shifting audience demographics, young and grunge, and taste in jazz within the region. Maybe, just maybe, the mantel of jazz is shifting from traditional, straight ahead sensibilities to a new panorama of music. Although this trio plays traditional instruments, as the world knows by now, there is nothing canonical nor orthodox about their playing, music or style. They eschew categorization and the best I can do to describe this trio is that their music is an amalgamation of rock, modern-fusion, straight-ahead, and pop with a heavy smattering of avant garde, but not your daddy's brand of progressive music. It is nothing short of adventurous and moderately experimental. You have to possess highly-developed ears to treasure the visionary measure of their music.
The trio relies upon their own expanding catalogue of originals, which is wide-ranging and all inclusive, and capricious interpretations of the "new standards," the current array of pop and rock anthems. Because they gainsay both jazz orthodoxy and standardized musical theory, compounded by our limited understanding of their complex musical overlays, our enjoyment and appreciation of their brand of music can be easily circumscribed. You cannot be a casual observer and listener and this is my major contention about this concert and why I cast it into two phases: the first phase where I did not recognize the songs and heard them for the first time had a jarring effect, leaving me awash with bewilderment; and the second stage where I had more than a passing fancy with the themes and thus the crosswise of my grasp, discernment, and personal taste were satiated.
The trio presents an assortment of visual and audio contradictions. Iverson has the appearance of a semi-disheveled college professor with a matching professorial voice but with a beguiling and subliminal sense of humor, while Anderson and King were adorned in basic T-shirts and jeans and virtually nonverbal; I don't recall them speaking at all. Both Anderson and King are demonstrative, especially King, while Iverson is relatively reserve and restrained. Because King is so kinetic and explosive, it was difficult not to be drawn into his snare of animated gesticulations and rhythmic gymnastics. He seemed to be, most of the time, the focal point on each selection, an ironic perspective when you considered that the trio is not billed as a drummer lead group. While jazz piano generally provides elaborate, note-filled adornments over a well-controlled rhythm section, here the converse was true in that the rhythm makers were often the more prolific and prodigious underneath the sparing playing of Iverson on the ivories. The lack of convention and uniform raiment aside, the trio is well coordinated in the most important ways and you can sense that they read each other's musical and personal nuances to know when to arrive at the same junction.
Interestingly, another jazz paradox was readily apparent. In the general scheme of jazz concerts, the songs and interpretations are extended musical montages. In the hands of The Bad Plus, such a pattern is discarded and the songs and solos were relatively brief encounters. The concert opened with Iverson's "Who's He." Initially, and if you did not know the band, you would have thought you were witnessing separate realities and hearing a disconnect, questioning whether they were playing the same song. King, on drums, was turbulent and muscular juxtaposed against Anderson and Iverson who appeared, on this song, mildly sedated. I could not find any common thread between them but, then again, I am revealing my ignorance of the abstract. Anderson lead with a bass prelude on the next song penned by King, "My Friend Megatron." It was strong avant garde fare with a fist-cuff rhythmic brawl while Iverson rolled out beautiful, melodic lines. The song was a roller coaster of meters, mood, and magic.
Although it is a ballad, Burt Bacharach's "This Guy's In Love With You" enfolded at a slow, almost dirge like tempo and remained steadfast to the melody universally throughout most of the song, only to have momentary combustible interludes of deconstruct, raising suspicion that their interpretation was primarily meant to be a sarcastic assailment upon this classic song. This version will certainly not be found in the "Muzak" library. Sounding much like a sophisticated and very rapid polka, Anderson's "Barrel Loves to Dance," had it all - vacillation rhythms, tonality, and groove. Whomever Barrel may be, he or she would be weary attempting to dance to this song with all of those changes. This unpredictable phase was not for the faint of heart or the impatient as the songs seemed in constant transit, and we warn that children and novices should not attempt this at home.
But, the show progressed into more familiar and galvanizing terrain. Many of Anderson's originals and cuts from their "Prog" CD filled out this segment and compositionally they were delightful to hear. Anderson's "People Like You" is a sweet song with lush chords, exhibiting startling splashes of rhythmic crescendos. "Thriftstore Jewelry" is a sophisticated rumba-like piece of music, with many interesting characteristics and dynamics, lending itself to being one of the shows most stunning pieces. We can attribute the same accolades to the trio's treatment of David Bowie's "Is There Life on Mars," a grand musical piece with classical flair and phenomenal interplay and intensity; a great song indeed. Following on the heels is Anderson's "Big Eater," a cornucopia of ingratiating chords and panoptic palate of rhythms. King was a veritable hyper-kinetic cannonball of spastic herky-jerky motions which uncanningly and peculiarly contribute to the aggregate - a dandy song. "Physical Cities," ripe with anomalous cadences remained a striking musical composition and will be remembered as an audience favorite. "1980 Champion," a song about an Olympic ski jumper, was an athletic romp and the band let it rip. It was a tremendous song to end a concert. Even the encore ended with a super song.
Although the concert did not have an auspicious start for this writer, The Bad Plus rose to the occasion and made the evening memorable.
Randy Treece is an avid and ubiquitous fan of jazz music, especially on the local scene. For many years he has contributed jazz artist reviews for "A Place For Jazz "and has written album reviews on request by jazz artists. Randy resides in Albany.