LIVE: The Bad Plus @ The Egg, 2/8/19
Apart from Weather Report and Steps Ahead (whose line-ups were always fluid), there’s never really been a jazz equivalent of David Lee Roth leaving Van Halen or Ozzy Osbourne getting sacked by Black Sabbath – that is to say, a major band continuing after a founding member and focal point has gone. That changed in 2017 when pianist/blogger Ethan Iverson announced he was “taking a leave of absence” from the Bad Plus, and that jazz wunderkind Orrin Evans would be “filling in” for him. Either Iverson never got the memo or someone had a heart-to-heart with him later, because every subsequent write-up says that Evans’ appointment to the piano chair was always going to be permanent. By all indications, the transition seems to have gone seamlessly.
A limping Evans (walking with the aid of an African cane) followed drummer Dave King and bassist/frontman Reid Anderson onto the stage of The Egg’s Hart Theatre, each taking his place on a band set that was about as far back as the roadies could get. The Philadelphia native started out in the clear, chording softly with his left hand while playing hushed notes with his right. Anderson followed him eventually, playing notes that weren’t quite a solo but weren’t quite a fill, either; then King started “banging” his cymbals with stiff pink brushes, and the group was firmly ensconced in Anderson’s composition “Seams” – a track of their sort-of-ironically titled 2018 release Never Stop II, which made more than a few of last year’s “Best Of” lists. The piece was quiet to start, but at its height, the half-filled Hart was confronted with three towering counter-solos, all existing in the same space without stomping each other flat.
They followed with Evans’ bouncing “Commitment” another track off the band’s latest offering. However, this wasn’t just going to be a night for the “new and improved” Bad Plus. They followed “Commitment” with King’s “Anthem of the Earnest”, a punked-out track from TBP’s last Columbia release, 2006’s Suspicious Activity? The tri0 returned to King’s songbook later in the show for the pulsing, aggressive “Wolf Out” (from the 2012 E One Music disc Made Possible) and the almost-a-samba “Thrift Store Jewelry” (from 2007’s Heads Up date Prog). It’s not like King hasn’t been writing new material, though: “Wolf Out” was preceded by King’s contribution to Never Stop II, “1983 Regional All-Star.”
None of the new tracks seem to stand out against the earlier material, or vice versa. The Bad Plus still have as much in common with the “traditional” piano-trio format as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has with Steve “Crazy Eyes” King. TBP doesn’t reboot David Bowie or Vangelis any more, but there’s no shock value in rock covers nowadays, so why keep doing it? Instead, they use their aggression to fuel smart, imaginative, diamond-tipped originals that are as cutting-edge as anything else on the current menu. And when this band was on maximum attack at The Egg, it pushed the breath out of your chest and your eyes out of your sockets. It was all about the song and not about the solos, and that’s the way it’s always been with the Bad Plus.
King is still jazz’s answer to Animal on “The Muppet Show,” attacking his kit in a manner that looks completely ungainly but sounds utterly magnificent. He doesn’t use children’s toys all the time to find new and different accents, though he did break out some kind of red “gourd” that added soft chimes to the end of “Regional All-Star.” Anderson still plays one of the phattest double basses on the planet, making the Hart echo with a resonance Ron Carter would wholeheartedly approve of. He also has one of the driest senses of humor in jazz, referring to “Thrift Store Jewelry” as “Dave’s new show on TLC” and informing anyone who wanted to buy their new CD, “We don’t have any!”
I’d always thought replacing Iverson with Evans was pure genius. The creativity inherent in Evans’ multifarious projects made him a natural choice, and compositions like “Boffadem” and the regular set-closer “Trace” have the energy and depth to be eventually considered with the same reverence as TBP tracks of the past. The difference – and, maybe, the Devil – is in the details. Evans’ solos are rich as German chocolate cake and smart as a bag of whips, and Thelonious Monk’s influence is as prevalent here as on any of his earlier stuff. But while Iverson almost always reached for the one note that made you wince in pain, Evans goes for the one note that makes you drop your jaw. That doesn’t mean either approach is wrong; it is, however, why the Bad Plus should be considered “new and different” rather than “new and improved.”
In the middle of “Trace,” Evans worked and re-worked a muscular passage that started ringing bells in my head. Eventually, that passage formed into a title: “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the Nirvana anthem that made TBP both loyal fans and mortal enemies back in 2003. You can call the sub-reference a nod or a diss to Iverson’s time in the band. All I know is the two standing ovations the crowd gave the Bad Plus 2.0 was entirely heartfelt, saluting the group’s present and future rather than its past lineup. And that’s a good thing – unless you’re into David Lee Roth.