LIVE: The Bad Plus Joshua Redman @ Zankel Music Center, 10/23/15
Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Rudy Lu
The stage set at the Zankel Music Center for tenor master Joshua Redman and jazz provocateurs The Bad Plus (aka The Bad Plus Joshua Redman) was pretty bare-bones: drums, stand-up bass, piano, a tall stool and big mic for Redman… and a mahogany lectern with a simple green-and-gold “Skidmore College” banner hanging from the top of the dais. Did this show come with a lecture? Was this going to be on the Final? As it happened, the podium hadn’t been left out after an afternoon symposium. Skidmore President Dr. Philip A. Glotzbach used it to welcome the SRO crowd to the fifth anniversary celebration of the opening of Zankel Music Center.
Honestly, I was shocked; aside from the fact that I hadn’t known this was a special night, it seems like Zankel has been around forever, even though I was there opening night when Redman and piano icon Brad Mehldau christened the stage with an amazing set of mind-blowing duets. The Bad Plus also played Zankel during that opening season, though I missed that show. Now, these two major forces were back here, together, and thanks to the Zankel NOT being the Corning Preserve, we were able to hear every riveting syllable of the new musical language they have created.
The lectern stayed long enough for senior Artist-in-Residence John Nazarenko to introduce the band, who went directly into bassist Reid Anderson’s “Love Is the Answer”, a track from TBP’s eponymous 2001 Fresh Sound New Talent release. Fellow pianist Ethan Iverson started out in the clear, playing simple mournful chords, but then drummer Dave King used brushes to add a hissing samba beat, sending the piece into a sharp left turn. Redman came in on the second verse, keeping it very simple – simply beautiful. His high tones and Iverson’s ringing chords were simply made for this space, as was the massive tone and heavyweight lyric Anderson laid down on his solo. King was using just enough pressure to keep the rhythm interesting but not stampede Iverson’s follow-up solo, which was sublime. After a spectacular rising solo by Redman, the piece ended as it started, with simple hushed chords by Iverson.
From there, the group focused on tracks from its stellar 2015 Nonesuch release The Bad Plus Joshua Redman. Redman’s looping opening figure literally set the tone for Iverson’s rubato-centric “Faith Through Error,” which had Redman and King going absolutely dog nuts in space while Iverson just sat back and watched. “As This Moment Slips Away” is the opening track on TBPJR, and its purpose is to ease the listener into the unique matrix Redman and The Bad Plus have created; since we’d already been thrown off the raft on that score, the piece acted as a chance for everyone – including the band – to take a breath. Iverson added deep classical undertones to Redman’s “The Mending,” which swirled and shimmered like a Van Gogh painting, and King put down a beat on his own composition “Thrift Store Jewelry” that went from a gallop to a canter to I don’t know what as Redman went to town, blowing up the Zankel in the best way possible.
I’d originally described this partnership as a one-off pairing between two diametrically opposed superheroes that fight each other before they attack their common enemy. There was no fighting on this night, as The Bad Plus Joshua Redman were closer to the Fantastic Four than they were Batman vs. Superman. A smiling Redman looked on with respect and affection as Iverson worked through a high Gershwin-like solo on Anderson’s “Lack the Faith, But Not the Wine,” and Iverson and Anderson happily laid out to watch Redman and King use another deluge of rubato with attitude to shake, rattle and roll the Zankel on the chaotic “County Seat.” And where the raucous nature of Alive at Five worked against this fanatically detailed music, the sterling acoustics of the Zankel Music Center let the group showcase this concept in all its glory.
Redman’s saxophone seems to be the piece TBP was always missing, even though their unique take on this genre has stood tall for parts of two decades. By the same token, Redman’s presence brings a kind of normalization to The Bad Plus’ overall structure, giving it more power but less anarchy. The epic encore “Silence Is the Question” could well be TBPJR’s theme song, as it shows the final effect of this alliance. Iverson’s solo may have sounded like Bartok on a bender, but that vibe did not hijack the piece as it might have in the past. Meanwhile, Redman’s solos walked the high wire better than anything he’s created with James Farm or SFJAZZ Collective – two previous associations that seem a lot more natural than this current pairing. But then The Bad Plus Joshua Redman is only unlikely if you think these artists are where they were 10 or 15 years ago. Like the best jazz, this unit lives in the here and now, and to hear it now in a space that’s become such a major part of Greater Nippertown was truly an honor, as well as a damn good time.