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Saturday, January 10, 2009

Show Review: The Bad Plus at Jazz at the Bistro, Friday, January 9

Posted By on Sat, Jan 10, 2009 at 2:41 PM

The audience present for the 8:30 p.m. Bad Plus set last evening leaned more toward curious observers than diehard fans. It was difficult to suspect the sort of crowd that would take interest in the piano, bass, and drum trio, and even harder to guess what aspect of the group appealed to whom. Some seemed to favor the band's groove-heavy material, nodding their heads when Reid Anderson's limber upright-bass figures coalesced with Dave King's propulsive beats in a way that has drawn comparisons to the similarly marketed jazz/jam band crossover trio Medeski, Martin and Wood. Others appeared to be more moved by Ethan Iverson's piano work, which recalled the classical-influenced phrasing of Iverson's peer Brad Mehldau, particularly when the group pushed into ballad territories. 

Most of the audience seemed to approach the group with caution -- and rightfully so, because the Bad Plus has made its career by unabashedly testing the boundaries of what a jazz trio can and should do, through adventurous compositions and daring covers of songs by Nirvana and Aphex Twin. For this reason, the group always has something to prove to purists of the genre. Placing the modernist trio on the stage at the semi-elite Jazz at the Bistro seemed to raise the expectations for credibility even higher.

The Bad Plus made no attempt to cater to the potentially stingy crowd, instead opting to let its innovative approach speak for itself. In fact, calling the band "fusion" is an understatement: Harmonic, rhythmic and melodic elements of the group's original material brought up reference points as diverse as McCoy Tyner, Radiohead, Chick Corea, and Steve Reich. Some songs built into earth-shattering crescendos during piano solos, while others nearly disintegrated behind Anderson's sparse bass melodies. In some cases, he and Iverson would intersperse their solos with unison lines, making it nearly impossible to guess when their improvisations ended and structure began.

Many of the band's tunes made sharp turns with abrupt tempo and feel changes, landing somewhere inbetween John Zorn's schizophrenic experiments and the progressive journeys of Yes. (This is not surprising, given that the group named its 2007 album Prog.) Swerving compositions sounded like scores to films yet to be made, and many in the audience experienced these songs with eyes closed, presumably using them as a vehicle to let their imaginations run wild. Iverson was aware that his group's tunes had cinematic aspects when he announced that "Old Money" was "set in Duluth, Minnesota" and that explained the story of Jacque, the eccentric weightlifter that inspired set closer "1972 Bronze Medallist."

"Smells Like Teen Spirit":

The trio sounded wonderful in the room. Iverson's piano was warm and full, and Anderson's upright was clear and round, pleasantly filling out the low end. Dave King's cymbals never washed out the ensemble, even during the times when his thunderous fills had more in common with John Bonham than Tony Williams. King shined the brightest in the band's more rocking moments, which lead me to suspect that he, as well as his two bandmates, may have been initially drawn to the technically challenging aspects of jazz (rather than a passion for its language) as a budding musician. This may explain part of the group's overall disinterest in traditionalism as well as its sometimes limited vocabulary. The two moments in which the group sounded the most conventional -- a slow, bluesy number and a fast shuffle later in the set -- fell the flattest.

Of course, the Bad Plus sprinkled its set with a handful of cleverly constructed covers. An interpretation of "Metal" by minimalist composer Gyorgy Ligeti highlighted the abrasiveness of its choppy rhythms and the group's flawless execution. It was a twisted blend of Steve Reich's "Music for Large Ensemble" and Vince Guaraldi's "Linus and Lucy" -- and it sounded like Sufjan Stevens having a nightmare.

I was most impressed with the intelligent textures the group used to spice up their arrangements. Dave King pulled out quite a few tricks from his bag: reaching under the snare drum and rattling the wires with his hand, bowing the cymbal with his stick, and shaking a tambourine with one hand while playing complicated rhythms with his other.

But pianist Ethan Iverson won the gold medal for creative accompaniment. In a ballad halfway through its set, Iverson arpeggiated chords behind a slow and sweet bass solo. Eventually, his left and right hands began straying from each other, playing two rhythmically independent lines that sounded like a Philip Glass composition falling down a staircase. Soon, King abandoned his timekeeping role as well and the tune transformed into a wash of passionate free jazz for over a minute before swelling into a piano pounding shout chorus. The curious observers exploded in approval. It didn't matter if they walked in wanting to see Medeski, Martin and Wood or Brad Mehldau. At that moment, they were thrilled to be seeing The Bad Plus.

After the epic ballad, Iverson announced the name of the tune in the microphone. "That was 'Life on Mars?' by David Bowie." A loud "ahhhhh" arose from over half of the audience, who assumed they were listening to an original tune. The truth is, it didn't matter if it was a cover or not. The Bad Plus owned it.

-- Ryan Wasoba


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