Jazz has always been cool. And the musicians behind it have always been the coolest of cool. The list of the genre’s legends—including Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Dave Brubeck, and Bill Evans—reads like a royal court; these legends have come, in many ways, to define jazz and what we think it should sound like.
Enter three unassuming figures—two stocky, one thin—on the jazz scene, and you have The Bad Plus, a group that’s doing a stand-up job at redefining jazz for a new, younger generation of music lovers. They’ve taken the traditional definition and thrown it out the window, and it has landed in a beautiful mess for fans to stare at in amazement (and for some purists, probably in disgust).
A sizable crowd of eagerly waiting, mostly twenty- and- thirty-something concertgoers have convened at New York City’s Bowery Ballroom on the Lower East Side to gawk and stare at this exquisite amalgam of the past, present and future of jazz: a piano, a double bass and a stripped-down drum kit, played by three men who make up one of the most interesting, intellectual and innovative modern-jazz ensembles in ages.
The Bad Plus’s setup is egalitarian in every way, and this equality speaks volumes about the group’s sound; the instruments are in a line at the front of the stage. Drummer David King isn’t tucked away in the back but is sitting stage left. Pianist Ethan Iverson is stage right with his body facing the crowd, and bassist/bashful group spokesman Reid Anderson is front-and-center.
“New York City always knows how to f---ing represent,” Anderson says, holding back a million-dollar grin. And the members of The Bad Plus do a little representing themselves.
Playing most of the tunes from their latest album, Give, they show off not only a keen mastery of their instruments, but also the flare, rawness and freedom of improvisation that are among the key elements of traditional jazz. They begin their smoking set with the tri-colored “Do Your Sums-Die Like a Dog-Play For Home,” its syncopated rhythms and slow/fast time signature keeping the audience guessing as to when it should move its collective feet, a rare site at a jazz concert.
The band is spot-on with the drunken slow dance “1979 Semi-Finalist,” the beautifully performed Ornette Coleman classic “Street Woman,” the fun-filled, spastic romp “And Here We Test Our Powers of Observation,” and the deep, salient beauty of “Neptune (The Planet).” A smoking hot John Bonham-style drum solo launches the Plus full-throttle into the David King-penned Beverly-Hillbillies-meets-Charlie-Brown-theme “Layin’ a Strip For the Higher-Self State Line.”
(Bad Plus at Bowery Ballroom, photos by James Diers)
Highlights also included a mesmerizing cover of The Pixies’ “Velouria,” the song “Dirty Blonde,” which Anderson stressed was about “the hair color,” and the tropical lilt of “Cheney Piñata,” which was accompanied by a brief word from Anderson about the group’s obviously leftist political views.
Closing the set, The Plus dives head-first into “Big Eater”—the explosive opening track from its major label debut, These Are the Vistas—and the song’s infectious, doubled bass- and- piano line, and “Take Five”-ish off-beat drumming elicits a bevy of hoots, cheers and whistles from the crowd.
For the first encore, The Bad Plus drives the audience to a near-headbanging frenzy with its ball-breaking jazz version of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man.” All of the tremendous guitar roars and Ozzie-isms are summed up in the crashing piano’s melodies and glissandos, the thickly plucked double-bass and simple, yet crushing, drums that closely parallel those of the original version. The Bad Plus’ soft, lightly floating coda—as opposed to the feverish descent-into-madness ending of Sabbath’s original—makes for a welcoming breath of fresh air and remarkably tangible substitute.
The band returns for a second encore and breaks into a previously unrecorded audience sing-along (with Reid on lead vocals), called “The People of the World Are United.” After a night of tearing his bass to shreds and playing his heart out with his two comrades, the song seems to sap all of Anderson’s remaining energy.
It was a wonderful performance, and The Bad Plus is on its way to taking the rest of America by storm. Say goodbye to your nonplussed days of jazz listening and say hello to The Bad Plus.
(Bad Plus at Bowery Ballroom, photo by James Diers)