THE BAD PLUS
St. Joseph's Hall
The College Of St. Rose
October 27, 2007
By J Hunter
What the hell happened? Someone sitting behind me said that. I could understand where he was coming from.
The Bad Plus had just finished Let Our Garden Grow, a blindingly complex piece from the Minnesota trio's 2005 disc Suspicious Activity? (Sony Records) Like most of TBP's catalog, this composition pulls the listener through a labyrinth of tempo and direction changes most musicians wouldn't even conceive of, let alone attempt. The problem here was that the band had used the piece as their opening number.
Getting shoved into a musical Cuisinart right out of the box can be unsettling for those who aren't familiar with The Bad Plus. So I could understand where the man behind me was coming from. I was just too busy devouring the band's phenomenally creative (and wonderfully subversive) product with both hands to try and relate to his confusion. There's no middle ground when it comes to The Bad Plus: Either you love them madly, or you think they're the Antichrist's house band. I'm in the former category.
The high dudgeon TBP's detractors like to display ignores the fact that the band's singular approach to post-modern fusion has helped create a new generation of jazz fans; that result was evident in the makeup of the audience that packed the sweltering St. Joseph's Hall. By all stereotypes, most of the crowd looked like their original destination was a Keller Williams/Deep Banana Blackout double bill, and had walked into this show by accident. Instead, the expressions on the mostly-student-age listeners was rapt as TBP soared through a 90-minute set that mixed earlier material with excerpts from Prog, their first release for Heads Up. And while TBP also served up more of those rock-music covers the aforementioned detractors get all outraged about, the biggest ovations came for wild originals like Physical Cities and Anthem for the Earnest.
Outwardly, most of the evening's music had no direction or connection. More often than not, the musicians seemed to be operating in three separate realities, playing solos that had no relationship to each other; this was the effect on the Dave King composition My Friend Metatron and on Ethan Iverson's Old Money. The fact is that at the heart of this music's outward cacophony, this group shares a communication and a structure that is as beautiful as it is intense.
Iverson comes across like a mildly sardonic college professor, his conservative suit-and-tie combo in direct contrast with the Slackerwear of King and bassist Reid Anderson. Iverson's spare, classical-based piano seems miles removed from King's wholly unorthodox drum technique. The perpetually-grinning King attacks his kit with a fervor that recalls the Tasmanian Devil charging an unsuspecting water buffalo; King turned the mic stands into ancillary percussion instruments during The Empire Strikes Backwards and he helped propel Anderson's funked-up solo on old Money by keeping the groove with a set of car keys.
When Anderson's head wasn't on a swivel keeping tabs on his bandmates, his eyes were rolled back into his head as he laid down double-bass lines as thick as steel cable. His counter-solos were worth the effort it took to hear them, and some of the night's most beautiful moments came when Anderson played in the clear, as he did in the intro to an epic deconstruction of David Bowie's Life on Mars. In contrast, TBP gave Rush's Tom Sawyer (A song from Canada, Iverson said, by way of simple introduction) a pretty straight reading, though that says more about the complexity of the composition than it does about any reverence the band may have for the piece.
We need more bands like The Bad Plus, if only to keep the genre honest, and innovative units like Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey and the Robert Glasper Trio are pitching right in. That being said, seeing TBP in a venue like St. Joseph's Hall (a venerable space reminiscent of a well-carpeted grade-school auditorium) was a rare experience that all participants will remember
even if some of them couldn't understand what the hell happened.
J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz programming), Q104 WQBK/Albany, and WSSV/Saratoga. He has also written music and theatre reviews for the Glens Falls Chronicle. He currently resides in Clifton Park.