LIVE: The Bad Plus @ The Egg, 2/8/14
Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Rudy Lu, Andrzej Pilarczyk, Bender Mellon
It had been three years since I’d seen the Bad Plus, and the previous circumstances were not conducive to a satisfying listening experience: They were in the middle of the Main Stage bill at Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival, and SPAC’s amphitheater eats piano trios like I eat Brown Bag burgers – quickly, completely and with gusto. The fact is, TBP needs a small space and a dedicated audience to do that insane voodoo they’ve been doing for over a decade. In The Egg’s Swyer Theatre, they had both.
Most bands go for your throat right from the jump in concert, regardless of their genre. Maybe TBP chose bassist Reid Anderson’s slow, somber “Pound for Pound” as an opener because they knew the evening would get weird and wild later on, and they wanted to pace both themselves and the almost-full house. Either way, Dave King’s drumbeat was both martial and funereal as Ethan Iverson’s piano chords stayed sparse as he helped his partners build the foundation. Only the piece’s off-time meter separated this tune from any other memorial.
The mournful tone sort of remained the same, but bit-by-bit, the piece got wider and more colorful as all three players started adding more ingredients one by one – a riff here, a trill there. Iverson finally started a solo (of a kind), which King automatically countered. In normal jazz terms, that usually means both players were going off the hook… but then again, the Bad Plus are not a normal jazz outfit. Iverson’s always been a site-specific noisemaker, and “Pound” didn’t call for any major pyrotechnics. And while King’s pom-pommed white wool hat and grey slackerwear helped make him look like the madman drummer we all know and love, he wasn’t ready to blow up real good just yet. The piece never lost its unpredictability, but compared with what was to come, “Pound” was a pretty soft opener.
And everything that was to come came from the band’s own pens. The Bad Plus stopped relying on rock & roll covers some time ago, which was a very good call: Playing jazz takes on “Iron Man” and “Heart of Glass” was a world-shocker ten years ago, but nowadays bands like Radiohead, Nirvana, Led Zeppelin and David Bowie are frequent sources of inspiration and material for modern-day jazzers. In any case, this group doesn’t need other people’s tunes to be cutting-edge; they’re plenty cutting and edgy all on their own, as we saw from the wild three-way monologue they threw at us during Iverson’s “Self-Serve” – one of several tunes they played from their soon-to-drop (and, frustratingly, unnamed) new release.
To call Dave King “unorthodox” is like calling Louie Gohmert “outspoken.” His technique occasionally reminds you of old videos of The Who – Keith Moon did ridiculous child-like antics while the rest of the band mimed to a backing track. Put simply, it often looks like King is fucking around rather than playing, and the things he does just “happen” to work. But the Moonie metaphor works on two levels, because nobody sounded like Keith Moon, and no modern jazz drummer sounds like Dave King. His solo on his own composition “Wolf Out” was downright mesmerizing, and King took us down Alice’s rabbit hole during the free-for-all “Adopted Highway,” showing us weird creatures and strange stories that shouldn’t have been real, but most definitely were.
As bombastic as he was on “Jewelry” and on Anderson’s “Dirty Blond”, Iverson is usually the exact opposite of King, playing with a physical reserve that would please most concert pianists. When he doesn’t play, he sits hunched over and motionless, but when Iverson’s on the job, the tune’s the thing, and not every tune is a chance to let his freak flag fly. Iverson may have played a few chords with his right elbow on “1974 Bronze Medalist”, but every note he played had a reason for being there other than personal aggrandizement. The same went with the Anderson-penned show closer “Never Stop”, which had laser-focus in comparison to the madhouse of “Highway.” Playing avant-garde jazz doesn’t mean you have to set fire to the piano. All it takes to make it weird is change one variable, and Iverson’s one of the best at that gambit.
Anderson doesn’t get near the attention his partners get, which may suit his generally understated demeanor. But that demeanor masks a sense of humor as dry as a Los Angeles riverbed: Introducing “Bronze Medalist,” he gave a sly sub-reference to TBP’s long-ago cover of the theme from “Chariots of Fire” when he said, “You should have a few songs about the Olympics in your repertoire.” And while Anderson is primarily the anchor that allows Iverson and King to take their respective flights of fancy, Anderson’s in-the-clear opening solo on “Giant” was an absolute knockout, and his compositions had the same evil genius that runs through all TBP’s original material.
I remember the wild-eyed foaming rage the Bad Plus engendered when they first appeared in 2003. The trio’s twisted musical sense and then-unheard-of usage of non-jazz standards as primary set material yanked jazz traditionalists’ panties into a very tight bunch. The experts all agreed that TBP was a novelty act, a bright flash that would burn out fast and be forgotten quickly. Little problem there: It’s 2014, and the Bad Plus is still making music on its own terms, and those terms have absolutely nothing to do with any tradition but the ones they make. And in the right time and the right space, that makes for a hell of a great evening.